Within hours after Mayor Marion Barry announced a 10-point program last week that he said would take the District out of the "crisis mode" of prison management, attorneys were threatening new lawsuits over prison crowding, politicians were renewing attempts to stop construction at Lorton Reformatory, and John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, claimed that his county was "being invaded" by the city's unwanted prisoners.
In addition, some residents near the site of a planned 700-to-800-bed prison -- in Southeast Washington adjacent to the D.C. Jail -- said they did not want the facility in their neighborhood, and civil libertarians argued that the city should look to alternatives to prisons, not new cells.
If it all seemed familiar, it was. With only a few changes, the same people have been saying the same things for 15 years. That is when the long-running battle over the city's prisoners formally began, when four inmates at the old D.C. Jail filed suit against the city, saying that their confinement in the crowded, century-old structure was "cruel and unusual" punishment.
In the meantime, the city has built a new jail, added to it and doubled inmate capacity at Lorton, its prison in southern Fairfax County.
And at least a half-dozen times, the city has agreed in court to demands by attorneys representing inmates at various institutions to reduce crowding, improve medical care, set up a sophisticated inmate classification system, correct fire and safety hazards, speed up parole hearings, open new halfway houses, create more employment, education and training programs and remedy a list of other concerns.
Almost like clockwork, those attorneys have hauled the city back into court because it did not do any of those things, and often the city has admitted it has not.
Though the city has been held in contempt of court for violating the agreements -- three contempt proceedings are now under way -- a city official recently shrugged off the threat of yet another such action with, "It's just one more."
"The history illustrates that the management of the system is so inept, that it is so lacking in competence, that city officials have no idea of what to do and how to do it," said Alvin J. Bronstein, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "Other jurisdictions have ongoing problems, but they deal with their problems and new ones come up. They make some progress. But not in the District."
Top city officials who were asked to comment on the city's continuing prison problems have refused to answer reporters' questions for the past week as the city scrambled to find space to house prisoners to avoid exceeding a court-ordered 1,694-inmate population cap at the D.C. Jail.
In announcing his prison program on Friday, Barry blamed the "haste of trying to obey these court orders" for any mistakes he has made in handling the city's corrections problems, including recent failed attempts to convert a former police precinct station into a temporary jail, despite safety hazards, and to house 55 inmates at a private prison in western Pennsylvania.
But attorneys involved in various inmates' suits against the city say the dramatic scenes played out in the past two weeks as inmates were shuttled in and out of the jail to avoid violating the population cap were simply new twists in the plot of their long-running legal battle.
Steven Ney, an attorney for jail inmates, said of Barry, "He is not going to build his way out of a crisis," pointing out that underlying basics of managing the District's prison system are lacking.
For example, Ney said, "They don't know who they have and who really needs to be locked up."
That issue was first raised in 1971, shortly after the creation of the present D.C. Superior Court sharply increased the number of persons who were indicted in local courts.
Under the old court system, when there was only a Court of General Sessions and felony cases usually went to federal court, many felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors so the person could be tried in the local court. And because most persons were convicted of misdemeanors, the lighter sentences meant a greater turnover of the prison population.
But the 1970 D.C. crime act that created the D.C. Superior Court gave it greater powers and imposed the first mandatory minimum sentences here, a tactic that has since been used for a number of crimes.
Soon city and court officials were predicting that the number of persons in D.C. prisons would more than double by 1975 to 7,500. At that time, the D.C. Corrections Department housed about 3,100 inmates, or about 120 percent of its official capacity.
A jail to replace the century-old facility had been recommended in 1966, but a new site, south of D.C. General Hospital, was not chosen until June 1971.
A month later, the Public Defender Service filed suit against the city, citing inhumane conditions at the old jail. U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant, who still presides over the now 15-year-old suit, issued his first order against the city four months later, prohibiting the city from retaliating against the four inmates who filed the suit and halting the practice of punishing inmates by putting them in an area known as "the hole," formerly the jail's death row.
In 1975, Bryant, citing what he called "governmental lawlessness" in making no attempt to comply with his decrees prohibiting overcrowding, ordered the city to move 350 inmates from the old jail immediately.
When the city announced that the inmates would be moved to Lorton Reformatory, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors tried to intervene in the suit, claiming that neighborhoods near the prison complex would be adversely affected. Bryant denied their request, saying that the matter was between the inmates and the city.
The attempt to block the inmates' transfer is just one of many legal and political moves Fairfax and Virginia state officials have tried in recent years. The most successful came in 1977 when U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr., sitting in Alexandria, declared the prison complex a "public nuisance" because of fear and inconvenience to nearby residents caused by escapes and violent disturbances, but he refused to order it closed.
Herrity last week criticized the city's decision to put weekend-only prisoners in Lorton's already crowded minimum-security facility beginning Friday night. He said the move constituted "these idiots . . . pouring more powder on the keg" at the facility, which opened last year.
"They just keep stuffing the place with more prisoners," said Herrity, who has been at the center of Fairfax's campaign against Lorton Reformatory for the past 15 years.
"Nobody cares what we are thinking or what we do or what we say," he said.
Over the years, attorneys representing inmates at various of Lorton's eight facilities have obtained court orders setting inmate caps at three of them, the Central, Maximum Security and Youth Center I institutions.
But Fairfax would still like to block construction of any more additions at Lorton, including a 400-bed facility being built at Central. At the urging of Herrity and others, U.S. Sens. John W. Warner and Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.) introduced legislation in January that, among other things, would ban new construction at Lorton.
Although the measure is still in committee, John Miller, a spokesman for Trible, said last week that the senator soon will try to get the construction ban onto the floor of the Senate for a vote.
Just as the battle between the District and Fairfax over Lorton has continued unabated for 15 years, so too has the jail inmates' legal quest for an end to crowding and to make the city give them basic services.
During the first long hearings on the inmates suit, in 1975, J. Patrick Hickey, then a public defender, argued that the city jail lacked, among other safeguards, a proper penal classification system and basic services for physical and mental health.
In his 1975 order requiring inmate transfers, Bryant mandated that the city provide physical examinations for all incoming inmates and mental health services to those who needed them and to begin a classification system to determine what type of incarceration and treatment each inmate needed.
The new jail was opened in 1976, and District officials believed that it would solve their prison problems. But it, too, was crowded as soon as it was opened, and Bryant refused to dismiss the suit.
Nearly 10 years later, Hickey -- still the inmates' lawyer, though he is now in private practice -- was back in court arguing for the same things he has sought during the first major hearings: fewer inmates at the jail, physical exams for inmates, mental health services and a classification system.
In his most stringent order, Bryant in July gave the city 45 days to meet a rigid inmate population cap at the jail and told city officials that if they housed more than 1,694 inmates at the facility for more than 48 hours after Aug. 22, he would close the jail to all new inmates.
Bryant, who made several unannounced visits to the jail, described it as squalid and unsanitary and again ordered that the city create an inmate classification system and provide for physical and mental health needs.
At the time the judge imposed the population cap, 2,575 inmates were being housed in the jail, and other Corrections Department facilities were above their official capacities.
One day before the inmate ceiling was to take effect -- and with fewer than 100 inmates moved out of the jail -- the city got a 90-day reprieve from Bryant after the federal government agreed to take about 700 D.C. prisoners and all newly sentenced prisoners until the city could add temporary inmate spaces.
The decision of the Justice Department to become involved in the city's prison problems was urged by U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova and Royce C. Lamberth, head of the civil division of the U.S. attorney's office here. It ultimately provided the leverage that led to Barry's announcement of a new prison site last week.
The involvement of the federal government also introduced the first major new player into the prison standoff in a decade.
Lamberth said last week that the decision to assist the city by taking large numbers of inmates "was based on assurances from the city on actions they were going to take to move forward and resolve the crisis." He said those actions included vows to build a new permanent prison in the District and to provide temporary housing for inmates until the new prison was completed.
With the assistance of the federal government, the city was able to meet Bryant's inmate population ceiling at the jail by the Nov. 22 deadline. But by then, federal officials were beginning to worry because the city had neither chosen a site for a new jail -- which Barry had endorsed in January -- nor created any temporary housing for inmates.
Despite diGenova's testimony before the D.C. City Council in December that the federal government had no intention of becoming the city's jailer, and what Lamberth said were other private signals, he said that "it finally became apparent to the deputy attorney general D. Lowell Jensen in January that a complete cutoff of federal assistance was appropriate in order to cause action to be taken to resolve the crisis."
On Jan. 14, after taking more than 1,700 D.C. prisoners in 4 1/2 months, Jensen told the city he was ending the agreement. Federal Director of Prisons Norman Carlson recently told a House subcommittee that about 2,400 D.C. inmates remain in federal prisons, compared with 808 from the 50 state prison systems.
Two days after Jensen notified the city that he was ending the agreement, he, diGenova and Lamberth met with city officials, who implored the federal government to resume accepting prisoners. But Jensen said he would no longer accept promises about what the city planned to do, that there would have to be action by the District before he would consider taking inmates again.
Nine weeks later, after hours of meetings between city and federal officials and the exchange of several stern letters as they attempted to pin down a site and size for the new prison, Barry revealed his prison program, including the construction of the new prison in Southeast.
At Friday's announcement, Barry seemed confident that his selection would engender little opposition.
But yesterday, a group pf about 15 angry Southeast Washington residents met with Barry to protest his selection of their neighborhood for the new facility.
"We're in full opposition," said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Flossie Lee, who lives on 11th Street SE.
"We're upset because basically he just said, 'This is where we're going to put the jail and that's that,' " said Jamie Platt, another neighborhood commissioner. "Ward 6 is tired of being dumped on."
"People here are just like anybody else. We want a family. We want a home," said Peter Eveleth, a former neighborhood commissioner. "There's a point at which a neighborhood can't take any more institutions."