A majority of the D.C. City Council has indicated that it opposes construction of a new prison in the District, instead favoring expansion of Lorton Reformatory, and is "disassociating itself" from ongoing negotiations between the Justice Department and Mayor Marion Barry over selection of a site.
The surprise action, contained in a resolution to be introduced today, represents the council's first public position on the construction of a prison here and seems to put Barry squarely between that body and the federal government.
Federal officials have said that the city must make progress toward a new prison in the District before they will offer the city any further help with its current prison crowding problems.
The resolution, introduced by council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) and sponsored by eight other members, states that a new prison should be built on the grounds of Lorton Reformatory in Fairfax County rather than inside the District's borders.
Barry, who announced support for a new prison nearly a year ago but in recent months has been wrangling with federal officials over a location, objected to the resolution yesterday in a strongly worded letter to Rolark, who heads the council's Judiciary Committee.
"I think this action is unfortunate, and I oppose the resolution's adoption," Barry wrote. "[The] council must realize that our prison problems cannot be dumped exclusively in the lap of our Virginia neighbors. As unpopular or distasteful as it may be, the District must, itself, share in any expansion of our institutional capacity; the inmates are our citizens."
The Barry administration released a list last week of 16 possible prison sites in the city, but the mayor later eliminated all but six of those. He told Rolark yesterday that he plans to announce a final list of three or four sites this week.
Royce C. Lamberth, chief of the civil division of the U.S. attorney's office and the Justice Department representative in negotiations over site selection, said federal officials had no comment on the council's proposal.
The council's resolution states that the council "disassociates itself" from the mayor's negotiations with federal officials and urges Barry to develop "a long-range comprehensive public safety plan." If in the meantime Barry decides additional prison space is neccessary, it states, he should "work to develop that space at the site of the current correctional facility in Lorton, Virginia."
The proposed resolution also notes that while Congress has appropriated $30 million for the construction of a prison, the federal government has made no commitment to financing the prison's operation, which the council estimated to be $17,000 per prisoner per year. The resolution does not note that Congress specified that its appropriation be used for a prison in the District.
"Congress sometimes pulls back from what it has done," Rolark said of the restriction placed on the prison money. "Lorton is there. It is our land, zoned for the city, and the people who live around Lorton knew it was there long before they moved there."
The resolution points out that the Lorton site, which has 2,300 acres, is 100 times the size of the largest District site recommended by the federal government.
City Council Chairman David A. Clarke, who supports the resolution, said the mayor had made it appear that the federal government is forcing a prison on the District.
"If the federal government says it will build a prison here, nobody short of God is going to stop them," said Clarke. "But the mayor's role has given credibility to the federal action. The council and the public would be more willing to accept the issue of a prison in the District of Columbia if we had fought to build it at Lorton and lost."
For years, the District's Lorton facility has been the subject of controversy among Virginia residents and politicians, who have stepped up their criticism following recent disturbances at the prison.
Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen has suggested that the prison be built at one of three sites -- the plot of land in Southeast where the old D.C. Jail was located, the St. Elizabeths Hospital grounds in far Southeast or the McMillan Reservoir site in Northwest. Barry specifically rejected the McMillan and St. Elizabeths sites last week.
The District's prison facilities, which have a rated capacity of 5,351 prisoners, had 5,951 prisoners last Friday, according to Barry. An additional 2,000 District offenders are incarcerated in federal facilities.
"The resolution will set the record straight as far as our preferences," said Frank Smith (D-Ward 1). "I also think it says the mayor should have at least put the issue of Lorton on the table before raising the issue of building a prison in the District."
Rolark's resolution is cosponsored by Clarke, Smith, John Ray (D-At Large), Hilda Mason (Statehood-At Large), Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5) and Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6).