As soon as the electrical power went out at Lorton Youth Center I early yesterday, inmates did just what they were expected to do. They started acting up, setting fires in the prison school and the administration building, and roaming in the darkness of the prison playground.
The disturbance was filmed by the D.C. police media productions section, and one of the more dramatic episodes occurred when about 300 inmates refused to disband. A police shotgun squad was ordered to the front line, and by 4 a.m., when the curtain closed on this latest act of outrage, 11 inmates had been shot.
The film production will probably be used to train police on how -- or, we can hope, how not -- to handle prison disturbances. But what was not captured by camera crews were the conditions that created the situation.
Simply put, it was the Lorton Reformatory itself, a theater of the absurb where bad actors only get worse.
In January 1985, nearly 60 inmates armed with pipes and chains set a fire and fought among themselves. Prison officials said the melee started when an inmate was caught stealing from another's locker, but that was not true. The violence seemed sudden, but it had been set in motion long before.
City officials had been warned for many months that extreme overcrowding at all of the Lorton's five facilities had created a "very explosive situation." Ironically, the situation was made worse by a methane gas explosion at Youth Center I, after which some inmates were transferred to Youth Center II -- a move that cut visiting hours and recreation periods at both locations.
Inmates at the two youth centers take recreation and visiting rights with deadly seriousness. The inmates range in age from 17 to 26, and have been sentenced under the Youth Corrections Act. Make no mistake about it: Some of these "youths" are hardened criminals who simply have more energy than they know what to do with.
Unfortunately, Lorton offers them very little to do, except learning how to file a lawsuit -- or how to file a knife.
The most obvious reason is overcrowding. But poor location is another.
Youth Center I, for example, sits in the midst of an immense garbage dump. Huge trash trucks, loaded with dirt and foul-smelling objects, roll in by the hundreds. Dust storms periodically sweep across the prison playing field, halting sports activities and forcing inmates inside.
Some inmates say that bacteria from the trash has caused irritating blotches to form on their faces and that visits from girlfriends decreased when rumors began that this ailment indicated the spread of AIDS.
As a result, many of the youths are hostile and have adopted the violent, confrontational style of older inmates to protest prison conditions. Last September, for instance, adults at Lorton's Central facility staged a work stoppage to protest their situation, and when prison officials tried to transfer the leaders, a fight erupted.
Thirteen inmates were shot by prison guards.
What happened yesterday showed that the younger inmates are just as ready to die. They are as frustrated and as violent as anybody who had been sent in for life. This says that Lorton -- as a reformatory -- has failed.
Indeed, with stabbings, beatings, rapes and riots routine occurrences, the sheer existence of Lorton is a criminal act. People are being injured and killed. Yet nothing is being done because they are inmates and, to make matters worse, because virtually all of them are black.
Prince George's County Jail officials, for example, didn't take years to act when there were reports of sexual assaults, many of them involving black inmates raping white inmates. But in the District, where the problem is black-on-black, city officials have been allowed to wiggle out of one court order and contempt-of-court citation after another.
In the end, however, we'll all pay -- not just the overtime cost of filming a prison-yard riot, but for producing reruns of violence on our streets.