Two high-ranking D.C. Department of Corrections officials made an emergency trip to Pennsylvania last night to inspect a privately owned and operated prison for the possible transfer of 55 inmates as early as today, Corrections Department sources and a spokesman for the prison said.
The development was the latest in the District's scramble to find emergency housing for inmates at Lorton Reformatory and the D.C. Jail before the weekend. The jail, which has a court-ordered limit on the number of inmates allowed to be housed there, is expected to receive a flood of more than 100 weekend-only inmates today that would force the population over the cap if no emergency inmate housing is found.
According to Philip Tack, secretary-treasurer of 268 Center Inc., a privately owned medium-security prison in Cowansville, Pa., located near Pittsburgh about 250 miles from the District, the corrections officials were to inspect the facility and hammer out a contract for housing the city's prisoners.
"We are going to house 55 [persons sentenced for] misdemeanors," Tack said. "I think they will be here tomorrow morning." Tack said he expected the city would pay about $35 per inmate per day for the housing.
Preparing for the influx of weekend-only prisoners today has been complicated by uncertainty about the opening of an emergency jail at 525 Ninth St. NE, originally set to open on Monday. Neighbors of the facility, which is to house 50 inmates, are seeking to block its opening and a D.C. Superior Court judge is expected to rule on their request today.
City Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large), said in a prepared statement that the opening of the Ninth Street jail "poses a threat to every neighborhood in the city . . . We won't stand for some crazy concept of scatter-site minijails in neighborhoods all over town."
If the building is not allowed to open, it will compound the city's problem of keeping the jail population below the 1,694-inmate ceiling tonight.
Last Friday, 42 inmates who arrived at the jail to spend the weekend in prison were held in buses outside the facility for as long as 10 hours because their presence would have forced the population over the cap.
It was concluded during a meeting Wednesday between Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen, U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova, Assistant U.S. Attorney Royce Lamberth and officials from the U.S. Marshals Service and the Federal Bureau of Prisons that the practice of holding inmates on buses was tantamount to denying them access, according to a federal official.
He said that the federal government was considering what action it might take if the practice continues and had warned city officials that the federal goverment might try to compel them to admit the inmates to the jail if it happened again.
After the population ceiling at the jail was imposed last July, the U.S. Justice Department agreed to a temporary agreement under which newly sentenced city inmates were housed in federal institutions. After taking about 1,700 of the city's prisoners, the agreement was ended in January, according to federal officials, because the city had made no headway in dealing with short-term solutions to the crowding crisis or in the construction of a new prison in the District.
In addition to the possible transfer of inmates to Pennsylvania and the possible opening of the Ninth Street jail, the city has studied other sites for possible emergency inmate housing, including the old Jewish Community Center at 16th and Q streets NW.