Chap Coleman told his wife that police had caught him speeding and that he would have to spend Friday night in the Alexandria jail. "I really had her going for a while," Coleman, a city official, said yesterday with a laugh.
Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney John E. Kloch also spent the night in jail, accompanied by his wife and two children.
Paul A. Fearson, another city official locked up for the night, said he "packed a little overnight case, just like I was going to stay in a hotel."
"It was like a dorm party," City Manager Vola Lawson said yesterday of the all-night, invitation-only slumberfest that kicked off the opening of the city's new $15 million, eight-story, 400-bed jail.
"Guests" -- mostly city officials -- began arriving at the Mill Road facility around 9:30 p.m. Friday.
On arrival, each was issued a roll of toilet paper, two sheets and a pillow case and was advised by Sheriff James H. Dunning that cells away from the Capital Beltway offer a bit more peace and quiet, a courtesy that will not be extended to the jail's regular clientele, expected to begin arriving as early as this weekend. (For security reasons, officials would not be more specific.)
In another departure from realistic prison conditions, even in a modern-day detention facility such as Alexandria's, Friday night's guests were not subjected to the strip-searches and treatments for lice that new inmates customarily undergo, one deputy said.
The jail, officially called the Alexandria Public Safety Center, is part of a $26 million complex that also houses police headquarters and the sheriff's office. It was built to comply with a 1982 federal court order after inmates sued the city over conditions at the jail in Old Town.
The new jail, in the Eisenhower Valley, will be the third-largest local facility in the state and the only one operating under "direct supervision," in which unarmed deputies are stationed directly inside the inmates' living quarters at all times. Prince George's County has a similar facility, which opened in February.
It seemed that everyone who attended Friday night's opening had stories to tell about Alexandria's old jail, which will be closed. There were tales of three-inch-long roaches, putrid smells, little privacy and severe overcrowding.
"It's such a vast improvement over the current jail," said Lawson, who stayed up half the night playing Trivial Pursuit before retiring to her cell. "It's not the Ritz-Carlton," she said, "but at least it's a humane place to hold prisoners."
"The other jail has bars and a big metal door," Fearson said, adding that the two facilities are "worlds apart."
Prisoners at the 160-year-old Old Town jail are seemingly acting nonchalant about the move, one deputy said, "but they keep asking me about it, and I know they're excited."
During an hourlong tour of the building Friday with about 20 guests and a few others who opted not to stay overnight, Dunning pointed out the state-of-the-art facilities -- among them, computerized door locks and video and audio monitors -- which some critics have said are overly elaborate and expensive for a local jail.
Dunning said the atmosphere -- calming colors such as beige and blue, soft lighting, and color television sets placed throughout -- is intended to make the prisoners fall asleep. One problem, Dunning said, is that deputies, who will spend 12-hour shifts in the same environment, also will tend to get bored, so they will be rotated frequently.
Although lounge areas throughout the facility are equipped with microwave ovens, pay phones, plastic furniture and weights, the 70-square-foot single cells each contain only a small, metal toilet, a sink, and a foam mattress. Two slits in the concrete walls offer the only view outside.
In contrast to the main lounges, the "remedial housing" section -- the common area for inmates who break the rules -- has only two metal benches for prisoners to sit on at mealtime.
"It's not a place you'd want to come to," Dunning said of the facility, "but it's much more comfortable and much safer than the old jail."
Throughout the evening Friday, the mood in the jail was jovial. City Council member Redella S. (Del) Pepper asked Dunning "if you turn off your cameras in our rooms when we undress."
And council member T. Michael Jackson said: "I've had worse accommodations at the National Guard."
After a basketball game in the inmate gym, guests stayed up playing board games and poker well into the night. When they finally began to retire, one asked how to turn off the lights in the cells. "They stay on," a deputy said, "so we can check you during the night."
Everyone rose early yesterday, with many guests sounding the same theme. "It makes me appreciate my freedom," said Fearson. ". . . They didn't slam the doors on us, but I can imagine . . . what the prisoners have to go through."
One woman, who slipped out of the jail at 7 a.m., voiced the sentiments of many a slumber party participant: "I'm going home -- to bed."