A D.C. Superior Court judge refused yesterday to bar the city from moving prisoners into a controversial emergency jail facility in Northeast Washington, but the fate of the facility, a key element in the city's plan to ease the crowding crisis in the District's prisons, remains murky.
Judge Curtis E. von Kann told a courtroom packed with Capitol Hill residents opposed to the facility that renovation of the building at 525 Ninth St. NE probably would not be completed until Friday, at which time he will hold a hearing on whether the city can open the emergency facility. In the meantime, he said, if the city plans to move any inmates into the facility, it must give residents of the surrounding community 24 hours' notice so they could seek a court order blocking the move.
Meanwhile, there were 49 new inmates sent to the D.C. Jail yesterday, but only 48 spaces in which to put them without forcing the population over its court-ordered ceiling of 1,694, according to D.C. Corrections Director James Palmer.
Palmer said that 10 prisoners from the jail were transferred to prison facilities at Lorton Reformatory to make room for the new inmates and to give the jail a cushion of vacancies to guard against any unexpected surge of lockups overnight.
"We will go right up to the wall," Palmer said. "But to avoid putting more people on buses, we will ship them to Lorton," he said, alluding to inmates who recently have been forced to spend up to 10 hours on buses outside the jail to keep the facility from going over its limit.
Attorneys for inmates at the jail have questioned the constitutionality of holding prisoners on buses and are investigating whether they should be included in the jail's total population figure.
Steven Ney, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, which represents sentenced inmates at the jail, has asked the city to explain the practice and provide information about the extent of its use.
"If prisoners are to be kept confined they must be provided with the basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter, medical and mental health care and protection from harm," Ney wrote in his request for information.
The proposed emergency jail -- the old 9th Police Precinct station house -- has not been occupied in more than 10 years and is being renovated to house D.C. Jail inmates. The city announced last Friday that inmates would be moved in on Monday, and residents of the neighborhood asked Judge von Kann to block the move, arguing that the community had not been given adequate notice.
In announcing his order and scheduling Friday's hearing to consider residents' request for a preliminary injunction, von Kann was careful yesterday not to indicate where he stood on the issue, saying a more complete "factual record" was needed.
Following the hearing, D.C. City Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), who led a four-hour sit-in Monday in Mayor Marion Barry's District Building office to protest the proposed opening of the facility, said she was "very disappointed" that the judge did not block the plan.
"The District has had five years to get its act together," Winter said, alluding to the longstanding problems with jail crowding.
Martin McMahon, lawyer for the residents, told von Kann that the city had violated zoning regulations and Advisory Neighborhood Commission laws, which require the city to give residents 30 days' notice or to publish a notice in the D.C. Register when certain actions are planned for the area.
When Assistant Deputy Corporation Counsel Michael Zielinski argued that the location of a prison facility did not fall under the law, von Kann retorted that "it seems to be a rather bizarre act that says if you want to change garbage pick up dates you have to give 30 days' notice, but if you want to slide a jail in there" you do not. McMahon, saying residents had been given conflicting information about the kinds of prisoners who would stay at the facility, argues it would do "irreparable harm" to the neighborhood because no one knows "how secure the facility is gong to be."
City Administrator Thomas Downs said yesterday that the city originally planned to place both felons and misdemeanants in the facility, most of whom would be involved in work-release programs, but current plans call for the facility to house only persons convicted of misdemeanors and that anyone allowed outside the facility will be under close supervision.
Last night, residents were given a tour of the facility, and most denounced it as a "public relations ploy."
"Why the hell should we care what it looks like inside?" said one resident, Tom Scott. "This neighborhood has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. These people have put their time, their sweat and their money into revitalizing their homes, and this [facility] is a stab at our future."