Two Lorton inmates, one serving time for larceny and the other for a drug-related offense, were the first prisoners to be approved for emergency early parole yesterday as District officials geared up for the release of about 350 inmates to ease chronic prison overcrowding.
While D.C. Corrections Department officials transferred workers from other department staffs to sift through prisoner records in administrative offices, D.C. Parole Board staff members labored over a calendar to organize the flow of inmates through early parole hearings.
Mayor Marion Barry declared a prison emergency Friday, allowing him to reduce by 90 days the minimum sentences of some inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes, making them eligible for parole almost immediately. Release of all but a few inmates who either opted to serve maximum sentences or who were denied parole, would have to be approved by the D.C. Parole Board, under the emergency release bill that Barry signed June 22.
"We're busy," said Gladys Mack, chairwoman of the Parole Board. "We're getting all of our systems lined up. We will try to have as many hearings as possible."
Mack would not release the names of the inmates. She added that they are housed in Lorton's medium-security Central facility and will go to a D.C. halfway house in a few days, about 90 days before their scheduled parole eligibility. They are scheduled for final release in August.
One 35-year-old inmate was serving a four-to-12-year sentence for larceny, but actually served less than four years because several months had been knocked off his sentence for good behavior, Mack said. The other inmate, 38, was serving a three-to-12-year sentence for a drug violation, but because of good behavior served two years and three months.
Critics of the mayor's emergency action, including several D.C. Council members and federal law enforcement officials, expressed anger and fear about the early inmate releases.
Council member Nadine Winter (D-Ward 6) argued that "criminals are getting the wrong message" with the early releases and that the offenders should serve full sentences.
"I'm very much opposed to this," said Winter who voted against the emergency-release legislation last month. "These are not one-time offenders. These are not white collar criminals."
Winter also lashed out at the Parole Board for being too lenient with parole decisions. "I don't think they're capable of making decisions to protect my constituents," she said. "They haven't in the past. The Parole Board, as presently constituted, should be abolished."
The Parole Board hearings on the inmates scheduled for early release, which are closed to the public, will be conducted by one or two parole board members or hearing examiners, Mack said.
Inmates who are granted parole will be either sent to a halfway house for a work-release program or assigned to a parole officer and required to find employment. Most inmates, with the help of family and prison officials, are able to get construction, fast food or city government jobs, Mack said.
District officials emphasized that inmates who were convicted of violent crimes -- including homicide, rape, assault with a dangerous weapon and armed robbery -- and those serving mandatory sentences on drug convictions will not qualify for early parole.
"I greet the whole idea of early parole with a great amount of skepticism," said Rimsky Atkinson, a former corrections official who served last year on the District of Columbia Correctional Study Commission. "Everyone keeps saying that the only people released will be nonviolent. I don't believe that."
"What we have are people who are committing some very dangerous and serious misbehavior and are plea-bargaining their arrests down to some misdemeanor," Atkinson said.