The mounting drug crisis has inspired many of the District's politicians and activists to take to the stump with calls for tougher laws and sentences to get drug pushers off the streets. Yet, in an irony that is all too familiar to police and corrections professionals, the progress toward building a prison to house the drug-peddling pariahs is moving at a snail's pace, if at all.
"We can't get a consensus to build a prison and we can't get the courts to put them away," says Gary Hankins, chairman of the labor committee of the Fraternal Order of Police. "The whole damn system is backing up like raw sewage spilling into our community. Until pushers see us building enough cells to put a large enough share of them in prison, they know we are not serious. We are robbing the public by trying to sell them a false sense of security."
Mayor Marion Barry has said he intends to build a prison, of course, and has identified a site for one. It is unlikely, however, that he will unveil plans for it until after the November election. And, depending on the results of the vote here and across the country, it is possible that the intense pressure on Barry to build the facility may simply evaporate after the balloting.
Should that occur, it would make the current round of chest-beating by Barry and others look empty. For the time being, though, the rhetoric serves a clear purpose: the voters evidently want to hear it.
The death last week of University of Maryland basketball superstar Len Bias, whose body contained traces of cocaine, merely dramatized the public's apparent conclusion that drugs pose a fundamental threat to civil order. Several D.C. politicians, speaking privately, say their polls tell them this is so.
It is not surprising, then, that in recent weeks Barry has called repeatedly for changes in the law that would bring life sentences for drug merchants who use children to help them sell drugs.
Barry has also attempted to blunt the criticism of his plan to evict illegal tenants of public housing units by declaring that many of them are drug pushers. That assertion resolves the question of where many of those illegals should go when they are evicted from the housing system: jail, says the mayor. D.C. Council Chairman David A. Clarke, too, has highlighted drugs as a critical problem, and has reminded audiences repeatedly that the council added nearly $6 million to the city's budget for additional drug prevention and treatment programs.
Meanwhile, the city's Democratic Party regulars, traditionally a liberal-minded group, reflected in their recently approved party platform the inconsistent aspect of many politicians' revulsion against drug pushing.
While the party endorsed tough measures against drug dealers, its members went decidedly limp on the question of prison construction.
At their convention last weekend, the Democrats endorsed stronger penalties and increased prosecution for drug dealers and called on law enforcement officials to "remove drug traffickers from the District of Columbia." Yet the only thing the Democrats had to say about new prison space was that they support "development of safe and secure incarceration facilities for all prisoners" -- with no mention of whether that means new construction and, if so, where.
Location is the crucial question in the prison debate, because people don't want prisons in their back yards. About location, Democratic officials say only that they do not want a prison in the city's residential neighborhoods.
And that brings us back to Barry's plan, which calls for a 700- to 800-bed facility adjacent to the existing D.C. Jail in an area of Ward 6 that is considered to be residential.
Since the mayor's unveiling of the plan this spring, his planners presumably have immersed themselves in the facility's design. But at a hearing earlier this month conducted by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the District subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Barry had little to say about when the design plans would be published. Staff aides said it is highly unlikely that those plans will be ready before the election.
That would be convenient not only for the drug-deploring mayor, who faces reelection, but also for council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6), who has the mayor's support in her own reelection bid and who faces potential voter backlash if prison construction actually were to begin in her ward.
Barry is demonstrating that, in the hypersensitive political debate over drugs and prisons, it is possible to call for harsh treatment of the pushers but to fall slightly short of building the cells needed to incarcerate them.
A stalling action could be rewarded, moreover, by changes in the U.S. Senate. Specter, an ardent backer of prison construction who forced Barry to move in that direction, is up for reelection. If he should lose, the mayor may not have to contend with a booster of prison construction.
Another possibility is that the GOP will fail to retain its majority in the Senate, in which case the Democrats would take control over the crucial subcommittee as well as its parent Appropriations Committee.
The result, some cynics might say, could be the end of any further discussion of a new prison.