U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova denied last night that federal officials have changed their conditions for resuming the practice of taking District prisoners into federal institutions to relieve crowding at the D.C. Jail.
City Administrator Thomas C. Downs said Tuesday that such a change prompted the city's decision to break off negotiations on the matter with the Justice Department.
"There is nothing new in the attorney general's position that the District construct immediately temporary facilities to house its prisoners," said diGenova.
"On the contrary," he continued, "the attorney general has maintained this position since initial involvement in the present crisis in August of 1985."
Downs has charged that the federal government only recently told the city it would have to build facilities with 400 temporary beds -- in addition to the 80 beds scheduled to open tomorrow in a Superior Court cell block -- before the Justice Department would consider renewing the prisoner agreement.
The agreement, which for 4 1/2 months helped the city to meet a court-imposed inmate population ceiling of 1,694 at the D.C. Jail, has been the subject of intense negotiations between city and federal officials since Jan. 16, the day after it was ended by Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen.
Jensen said at that time that the city had failed to make progress on finding a site for a new permanent jail in the District.
DiGenova's remarks came after Mayor Marion Barry testified before a congressional panel yesterday that he had tried unsuccessfully to discuss the matter with Jensen as recently as Monday.
Barry told Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the District, that Attorney General Edwin Meese III "has been unresponsive" to the city's requests for help and blamed Meese for "creating the illegal situation at Lorton by designating prisoners there."
In addition to the inmate limit at the D.C. Jail, three facilities at Lorton Reformatory in Fairfax County -- Youth Center I, Maximum and Central -- are under court-ordered population ceilings.
Under District law, only the attorney general can designate the prison in which an inmate is to serve his sentence, and city officials have argued that the provision means the federal government shares responsibility for housing the city's prisoners.
"That's a flat legal statement that the attorney general has responsibility," Specter said, repeatedly asking whether Barry and other city officials had made that clear to the federal government.
"If they followed the law, you wouldn't have this problem," said Specter, inquiring whether Barry would be willing to turn the corrections department over to the federal government.
The mayor, City Council Chairman David A. Clarke and council members Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8) and Nadine Winter (D-Ward 6) told Specter that they would not support relinquishing control of the prisons, but said the city's continuing prison crisis is rooted in its divided criminal justice system under which the federal government controls appointment of judges and prosecutors and the District controls the prison system.
A 400-bed addition to Lorton's Central facility is expected to be completed within a year. Barry announced plans last week to build a 700- to 800-bed prison to specialize in treatment of prisoners who are alcoholics or drug addicts,but construction is expected to take three years.
DiGenova said the fact that 2,400 District prisoners, compared with 800 from the 50 states, are now housed in federal prisons shows that "the attorney general has consistently responded . . . to the needs of the District of Columbia, created by its chronic failure to deal with its own prison crisis."
After the hearing Downs said after the hearing that city officials were "still optimistic that the Justice Department . . . .will take some prisoners at some point."
The hearing also underscored a breach between the mayor and City Council on construction of a new prison in the District. Nine members of the council are supporting a resolution that opposes building a new prison in the city and recommends that any new facility be added to Lorton.
At a council hearing on the resolution last night that attracted more than 100 persons, Clarke characterized the prison as "coming to the place of least resistance," noting the vigorous stand by Virginia officials against adding more beds at Lorton.
Clarke told mayoral aide Hall Williams it was a "tragic concession" that the people of Virginia have more clout than those in D.C.Staff writers Sandra Evans and Sharon LaFraniere contributed to this report.