District officials promised a Superior Court judge yesterday that they would not attempt to use a former police precinct house on Ninth Street NE as a detention center for at least four weeks, closing off one of their options for housing a critical overflow of prisoners.
Steven Kramer, an attorney for residents who opposed the opening of an emergency jail at 525 Ninth Street, said city attorneys acknowledged that the building had not yet been fully renovated, although it was originally expected to open March 10. The officials did not say where they planned to put prisoners who cannot be housed in the D.C. Jail because of a court-ordered inmate population cap, Kramer said.
Martin McMahon, who argued the residents' case in a four-hour closed hearing before Superior Court Judge Curtis E. von Kann, said the city's attorneys hinted that the District may never need to use the Ninth Street building for inmates, but "they certainly didn't guarantee that."
Von Kann stated in an order issued late yesterday that the city had agreed not to try to house inmates in the old precinct house at least until April 16, the date the judge set for a hearing on neighborhood residents' request that he bar the city from establishing the emergency jail.
The District has been desperately seeking emergency housing for its inmates until it can build a new prison, the site for which, according to sources, may be announced today.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that handles the District's budget, said yesterday he would like the federal government to operate the new prison. He said that while his proposal "raises the problem" of cutting back on home rule, it makes sense because the federal government will be bearing much of the prison's cost and because "the Department of Justice has a lot of experience running" prisons.
Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) said Specter's proposal "must be examined now in light of the growing crisis. I am supportive of home rule but I don't think the mayor, who has tried hard, is getting the support he needs within his own administration and from other persons in the District of Columbia in solving this crisis."
In a letter to Specter, Assistant Attorney General John R. Bolton said the proposal would have to be "carefully assessed" because of the home rule issue and because the Justice Department must handle the problem of overcrowding in its own prisons, which are 40 percent over capacity.
D.C. City Council members described the proposal as unnecessary and a step backward for home rule. "Prisons are part of the reponsibility of local government and should remain so," said City council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large).
If "they do it and operate it, then the next thing they're going to do something else and operate it," said member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2).
"There is some practical advantage to one government operating the prisons rather than two governments, but I would hope that the movement would be in the direction of home rule," said council Chairman David A. Clarke.
Council member Betty Ann Kane (D-At Large) said, "I think this is a problem we can solve if people would get off the dime and choose an appropriate site and stop these crazy interim schemes that turn the corrections department into a travel agency and hold neighborhoods hostages."
The question of where to house prisoners has dogged the District daily since the federal government decided in January to cancel an agreement to house the overflow of inmates from the jail, which is under a court-imposed cap of 1,694.
According to two sources, Mayor Marion Barry has decided on a site for a new prison after months of searching. Barry has said he plans to make an announcement today on where he plans to house inmates.
As a temporary solution, city officials tried early this month to turn the former 9th Precinct Police Station into a detention center, provoking residents to seek a preliminary injunction. The residents' attorneys had hoped to argue their case today, but von Kann yesterday ordered the hearing put off until April 16. Von Kann also ruled that the city will pay the fees of the residents' attorneys and of experts employed by residents to develop their case.
The residents' attorneys argue that the building is a firetrap and that city officials cannot be trusted to use it to house only "cream of the crop" inmates, as they have promised. In a motion filed yesterday, the attorneys said they examined the records of about 54 inmates whom the District was planning to transfer to the Ninth Street building. At least 22 of them did not meet the criteria the District itself had set, the motion said.
One inmate slated for transfer to the facility had been disciplined for inciting a riot, one had been found with a 12-inch "shank" or homemade knife in his cell, one was serving a sentence for assault and seven had been convicted of violent crimes, the motion alleged. Three others had a history of escapes, the motion said.