When Alexandria's new jail opens in January, up to 100 of its inmates will be federal prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing. The city's decision to house those inmates has attracted little criticism, despite controversy over the District's efforts to house its overflowing prison population in local jails.
"We were under a court order to build a new jail. It [accepting federal prisoners] saves us money," said Mayor James Moran. "I haven't heard any objections."
In June 1983, the federal government decided to give the city $2.6 million to add 100 beds, said Sheriff James H. Dunning. The city has a 12-year contract to provide up to 100 beds a day for federal prisoners, and the city will also receive a "per diem" fee for each federal prisoner housed in its jail. The U.S. government must pay for 45 beds each day, regardless of whether it uses that many, "but we don't anticipate there'll ever be less than that," said Dunning. "If they want more than 100, that's our option."
The per diem cost will be computed by the city and the U.S. government by dividing the cost of running the jail by the number of spaces. Dunning said he did not know what that figure will be, but that he had heard estimates ranging from $60 to $90 a day.
In addition to revenue considerations, the decision to hold federal prisoners also was influenced by the presence of a U.S. District Court in the city. "Since there is a federal court in Alexandria and the city wishes it to stay here, the holding area should be nearby," said Paul Schott of the Alexandria General Services Office.
The current facility houses only "one or two" federal prisoners awaiting trial in the District Court "as a courtesy," said Capt. Eric Geiger. Back in July 1981, Sheriff Michael Norris refused to renew the city's contract with the U.S. Marshals Service to take federal prisoners because of the 1977 court-ordered ceiling on the jail population. Without a facility in Alexandria, marshals have had to shuttle prisoners between the federal court and jails as distant as Petersburg, Va., Hanover County, Va., and Virginia Beach, incurring enormous transportation costs and security risks. The problem isn't confined to Alexandria: "People awaiting trial in Baltimore District Court have had to travel to New York every night," said Dunning.
The new jail is close to the Capital Beltway, which is "good for access when they're transporting prisoners," said City Council member Patricia Ticer. Its isolated location has also calmed residents' fears, she said.
"I have an interesting theory" about how people feel about having a jail in their community that houses inmates from outside the jurisdiction, said Ticer. "And that is that the people in Lorton are not as unhappy [about Lorton Reformatory] as the politicians would lead you to believe. I was at a dinner party there [the Lorton community], and people were saying they like it because it's open space and the incidents there haven't been often enough to make them worry.
"I generally think that more than any dissension about the new jail , there is the fear on the part of the residents around the former jail about their own security," said Ticer. "Once the jail is gone, they're wondering if they'll get a police substation in Old Town, even though it hasn't been proven those are terribly effective."