One sweltering morning last week, sweat-soaked Sylvester Jones was trying to sleep in a crowded Lorton prison dormitory with 97 other inmates when a corrections officer brought him unexpected good news.
"He asked me how I felt about leaving early," said Jones, 26, who had served about a month in Lorton's Occoquan II prison. "I said I felt real good."
Jones, who was arrested last fall after trying to sell PCP to an undercover police officer, his first offense, is one of 134 inmates who were released early from District prisons and halfway houses last week under the emergency law Mayor Marion Barry invoked to ease the city's longstanding prison crisis. Drug possession was the typical crime committed by the released inmates, but many such as Jones were also serving sentences for drug distribution offenses.
The early release program has met with divergent reactions from city officials and area residents, ranging from fear and anger to ambivalent acceptance of a District government action taken out of desperation. Corrections officials argue, however, that about 135 inmates are released from prison every month as a matter of course and that residents are overreacting to the city's actions because of intensive media coverage.
With the declaration of a prison emergency July 3, the District has joined several states across the country that have implemented early release pro- grams. Officials in other jurisdictions say that early release was initially greeted with anxiety but eventually won community acceptance.
As of February 1986, eight states were operating their entire prison systems under court orders or consent decrees concerning crowding or other conditions, and 26 states -- and the District of Columbia -- had at least one major prison operating under a court order or a consent decree, according to the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. Only eight states had not been subjected to major civil rights litigation because of crowding, according to National Prison Project statistics.
Corrections officials in states that have released prisoners early -- including Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas -- say the measures were never expected to solve their serious crowding problems but were a quick way to stem temporarily the increases in the populations of the jammed prisons.
Under a Tennessee legislative measure to relieve crowding there, judges can reduce sentences by 30 percent for certain nonviolent criminals. "It has definitely helped with overcrowding," said James Thrasher, spokesman for the Tennessee Corrections Department.
Hal Leslie, spokesman for the South Carolina Corrections Department, said the state legislature had given the governor authority to declare a prison emergency and roll back sentences up to 90 days for nonviolent offenders. Habitual offenders of a major crime, arsonists, burglars and some drug offenders are excluded from early release, Leslie said.
"But the public does not like people to get out of prison early even if they are nonviolent," said Leslie. "If someone breaks into your house, it's not a small thing. If someone smashes your car, it's not a small thing. All the early release programs do is keep our head above water. Still, they are not what we would like to see."
The early release of District inmates is not what many area residents would like to see either, according to interviews with neighborhood groups, police officers and city officials.
"People are very, very fearful out there," said Ethel Onley, president of the Central Northeast Civic Association of Ward 7. "When you mention someone is coming out of Lorton early, that conjures up all sorts of horrendous things. It conjures up a visionary person who is going to come out and do some harm to the community."
Con Hitchcock, president of the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, is worried about the message that the action sends to potential criminals. "It sends a message that there is a problem, that sentences don't mean what the judge says they mean. And that doesn't increase respect for the law," Hitchcock said.
Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. did not express concern about the early release program, noting that the inmates all would have been set free within 90 days without early release.
But the leader of the union that represents rank-and-file officers expressed concern that the releases would further embolden criminals who have little fear of arrest.
"Most of the pushers of PCP, marijuana and heroin don't even try to flee when you arrest them," said Gary Hankins, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police. "They perceive they'll be inconvenienced during the arrest procedures and perhaps be kept in jail overnight if it's a weekend, but almost certainly they'll be back to the streets in a day or so."
Corrections officials have said that two out of three District prisoners will be repeat offenders. More than 98 percent of the city's current inmates have been convicted of offenses other than the ones for which they are now serving time.
Even several critics of the city's emergency release plan agree that it is inhumane to keep prisoners in crowded conditions, such as the brick barracks-style Occoquan dormitories where 90 inmates on double bunks, separated only by small lockers, are crammed into a room designed for 35. "They are still human beings," said civic group leader Onley.
"Dangerously overcrowded prisons simply cannot be constitutionally tolerated," said Jere Krakoff, staff attorney with the National Prison Project, which supports the early release program.
"This will not in itself eliminate the problem of profound overcrowding in the Lorton facilities, but it's a positive step," Krakoff said. "This is not something the community has to fear or be shocked or appalled by."
For Sylvester Jones, the short time he spent at Lorton has profoundly affected his life, and he sees his early release -- though it shortens his 45-day prison term by 13 days -- as an opportunity to turn over a new leaf. "I am going to get a job," Jones said. "I am going to try to live a good life, and I am going to try not to look back at the sad part that happened."