Officials from the District and the U.S. Department of Justice have broken off negotiations over the critical issue of whether the city will be allowed to house more of its inmates in federal prisons, a development that spells trouble for the District, City Administrator Thomas Downs said yesterday.
Justice officials insist that they will not consider taking additional D.C. inmates unless the city makes a commitment to add 400 more temporary beds to its own crowded system, while city officials say they believe that they have added all the beds they can, Downs said. "They have not been convincible," he said. "We're not negotiating anymore."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Royce C. Lamberth, who has been the federal government's negotiator with the city, refused last night to comment on Downs' remarks. Justice Department officials have said in the past that the federal government is unwilling "to remain the District's jailer" and that the city was not taking enough responsibility for finding solutions to its crowding problems. As of March 10, there were 2,400 D.C. inmates housed in federal prisons, compared with 808 from the state prison systems in the rest of the country.
Downs said city officials had been operating on the "understanding" that if Mayor Marion Barry chose a site for a new prison -- as he did last week -- and the city moved ahead with construction of a 400-bed modular facility at Lorton Reformatory, federal officials would consider resuming an arrangement to take D.C. prisoners in order to alleviate crowding.
But about two weeks ago, Downs said, Justice Department officials took the position that they could "attempt to provide some relief" only if the city came up with 400 more temporary beds at facilities in the District.
District officials have refused to do that because it would cost $14,000 a year per inmate and "would force us to go through the entire neighborhood drill again," Downs said. The city backed down on an attempt to convert a former police precinct station on Capitol Hill to a temporary jail this month after neighbors filed suit, and there has been continued opposition to other proposals for temporary and permanent facilities.
The latest opposition came last night when several hundred residents of the area near the latest proposed prison site in Southeast Washington turned out to register their views about a second prison in their neighborhood.
Three City Council members, two city government representatives and dozens of local residents took turns stating their views at an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting. Most opposed a prison anywhere in the city or a prison at the proposed site. The exception was resident Rimsky Atkinson, who said, "I support a prison at that location or any location in the city as long as we have one."
The applause and whistles from the generally middle-aged audience were reserved for speakers such as resident Al Jefferson, who said, "We are hard-working people. We never rock the boat, but now is the time to stand up and say, 'We don't want a jail.' "
Downs said that the city is fearful of opening itself to another lawsuit if it houses prisoners without providing sufficient medical services and recreation. Moreover, he said, city officials object to what they see as the Justice Department's changing demands. He said Justice officials' call for 400 more temporary beds is "a costly and destructive way of solving this interim problem."
Downs' remarks reflect the increasingly intense game of political hardball between the city and the federal government over how to handle the District's inmate crowding crisis.
In January, after taking 1,700 prisoners in 4 1/2 months, Justice officials cut off an agreement to house newly sentenced D.C. inmates in federal prisons, saying that city officials had not moved ahead on building a new prison or providing temporary facilities for inmates as they had promised.
Federal officials had agreed to accept some D.C. prisoners last August after U.S. District Court Judge William B. Bryant imposed a cap of 1,694 inmates at the D.C. Jail. In a letter to the city at the time, however, Justice Department officials said that the federal system, operating at 40 percent over official capacity, "could absorb District of Columbia code violators for only a short period of time."
On Feb. 12, a Justice Department official notified D.C. officials that they needed to expand the city corrections system by as many as 2,000 beds -- 800 more than the city has plans for.
Downs predicted that a lack of access to federal institutions would lead to continued crowding problems during the next five months, after which the new modular units at Lorton will be ready for about 200 new inmates. "It would be helpful if we had the relief space because it is likely that we will run into trouble" until then, he said.
At this point, Downs said, "We've done all the commitments we can . . . . We're building two prisons."