The inmate population at the D.C. Jail reached 1,694 last night -- the maximum number allowed to be housed there under a federal court order -- despite the release yesterday of 67 inmates whose normal parole dates would have been in the next four days.
Corrections Director James F. Palmer, who ordered his top administrators to return to work to deal with the crisis, said late last night that jail officials were holding weekends-only prisoners on two buses and processing them through the jail in small groups before putting them back on buses for Lorton Reformatory.
Palmer said he believed that the first busload of weekend inmates would be able to leave the jail before midnight last night -- as much as six hours after some of them reported in -- and that the official 4 a.m. count today would be between 1,684 and 1,691.
"I'm in trouble," Palmer said as his aides struggled to process an unexpectedly heavy influx of inmates. "It's just a matter of the clock ticking.
"I have a bus waiting for people who are cleared and a bus waiting for people who are coming in," said Palmer. "The buses are warm . . . . They inmates have got blankets, and we have made arrangements for them to use outside toilet facilities," he said.
It was the fourth straight night that the city avoided violating the inmate ceiling by keeping prisoners on buses for fear that their presence would push the count over 1,694.
American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Alvin Bronstein described the tactic as "the new D.C. Jail annex on wheels."
"It's another example of the lack of planning -- both short and long range -- on the part of the District, and the managerial and bureaucratic ineptitude that specifically pervades the Department of Corrections," said Bronstein. "The whole system is a mess, and they just seem to be digging themselves in deeper."
While prisoners arriving from Superior Court had been detained outside the jail for as long as three hours earlier in the week, such inmates were admitted within an hour of their arrival last night after law enforcement officials questioned the legal and security problems raised by holding inmates on buses for such long periods.
Corrections and other top city officials, hoping to avert last night's crisis, met throughout the afternoon to plan ways to avoid violating the inmate ceiling, which could close the jail to new prisoners.
Earlier in the day there were indications that the city might open an emergency shelter for inmates by nightfall, but late in the day Palmer said that the new facility, to be in the old 9th Police Precinct station at 525 Ninth St. NE, will open on Monday. The facility is expected to house at least 50 minimum-security inmates.
City Administrator Thomas Downs said the two-story building will be used primarily to house inmates on work-release. "This is not a jail, this is not a prison. It will be even more rigidly screened than a halfway house," Downs said.
Despite the early release of the parolees, the delay in opening the temporary facility meant that corrections officials had to scramble for space to house 77 weekends- only inmates, which Palmer said was the largest number in the department's history.
Palmer said that to provide a cushion for any incoming inmates today he hoped to transfer 13 more prisoners to Lorton.
The city's decision to open a temporary building came a day after U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant denied the city's request to make the federal government responsible, along with the city, in meeting the court-ordered ceiling at the jail.
Bryant is considering a request by attorneys for jail inmates to hold the city in contempt and fine it $50,000 for violating the population ceiling on Dec. 7 and then attempting to cover up the violation.
In announcing the opening of the temporary facility, city officials said they expected that the Justice Department will resume taking newly sentenced D.C. inmates "if and when the population at the jail nears the court-imposed cap of 1,694."
The federal government announced Jan. 14 that it was ending a 4 1/2-month agreement to take those inmates because the city was not making progress on building a permanent new prison in the city.
City officials have repeatedly asked the federal government to resume taking the inmates, but Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen has said that the government will not reconsider its decision until the city opens some temporary facilities.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Royce C. Lamberth, who has been the Justice Department's main negotiator, said last night that he had no comment on the city's renewed request.
In the past, federal officials have indicated that the city would have to provide a large number of new spaces before additional inmates are taken into the federal system, which now houses about 2,500 D.C. prisoners.
U.S. Marshal Herbert Rutherford, whose deputy marshals are responsible for transporting D.C. inmates, said that the District's refusal to allow inmates to enter the jail is "burdening my manpower and certainly burdening my budget, and I don't feel it's fair."
He said prisoners forced to spend several hours on the buses have become increasingly "disgruntled." If jail officials continue to keep inmates on buses for hours, Rutherford said, he will ask that D.C. Corrections Department personnel go to the court cell block and guard the inmates until their entry can be assured at the jail.