Hallem H. Williams Jr., dressed smartly in a chestnut-brown suit, made his way through the overcrowded, un-air-conditioned Lorton dormitory where more than 90 inmates were jammed into a former warehouse meant to house only a third that many prisoners.
As Williams calmly edged by inmates glaring at him from bunk beds, he left behind a hint of cologne, a sharp contrast to the smell of perspiration and the sight of fly paper strips, black with hundreds of dead flies, dangling from the ceiling.
"It's not the Ritz," said Williams, stepping out of the dilapidated red brick building and passing through a barbed wire gate. "But we're not interested in creating a country club. This is prison. At the same time, we have to make sure we don't violate the inmates' constitutional rights and expose them to cruel and unusual punishment."
In that remark, Williams, who took over as head of the District's beleaguered Department of Corrections in January, spotlighted one of his largest tasks as the new overseer of the bulging correction facilities: relieving the system's intractable overcrowding.
Williams is praised by his supporters for his strong background in criminal justice planning, a field that entails analyzing programs and statistics. But he is largely untested as a corrections administrator, and this is his first hands-on experience with criminals.
Some question whether even a director with stellar criminal justice credentials can have any impact on the troubled corrections department, an agency that has not been able to relieve crowding at its nine Lorton Reformatory units and the D.C. Jail for more than a decade.
"Mr. Williams is in an impossible position," said Peter Nickles, an attorney representing prison inmates in lawsuits against the city. "The numbers are so absolutely overwhelming. He's helpless. He's a pawn in a larger picture."
"I think Hal is capable, conscientious, direct and genuinely concerned about the problem," said Edward Kornegay, trustee of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 1714, the prison correctional officers' union. "But we have a deplorable situation, and it may ultimately be totally unmanageable."
Williams, 38, chuckles when he hears comments about the hopelessness of his task.
"I'm not unmindful of the enormity of my job," he said. "But that spurs me on. I enjoy the challenge. There's a low level of expectation and a high degree of need . . . . You could say it's a no-win proposition. I say it's just as easily a no-lose one."
Williams, who manages about 3,200 employes and a budget of roughly $200 million, grew up in the Brightwood Park neighborhood of Washington and attended Gordon Junior High School and Western High School, both then in George- town. In the next 17 years, Williams cultivated a reputation as a respected criminal justice planner.
He served as special assistant for criminal justice management to City Administrator Thomas M. Downs, working with Downs and Mayor Marion Barry to coordinate city corrections policy.
Williams moved to the corrections department about a year ago as deputy director and was named by Barry in January to head the agency, an appointment confirmed by the D.C. Council in March.
Williams also worked as director of planning and data analysis for the D.C. Parole Board, chairman of the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice and criminal justice and public safety planner for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, where his job was to foster cooperation among Washington and its surrounding jurisdictions.
"A criminal justice planner has to look at the bigger picture," Williams said. "While I'm dealing with the day-to-day routine of running an agency, I'm always looking at that routine in the context of the bigger picture."
His goals are twofold: To change the public's image of corrections and to reduce the recidivism rate by 10 percent.
Two out of three District inmates will be repeat offenders and return to the prison system after they are released, corrections statistics show.
Williams said he is trying to reduce recidivism by improving the rate of inmate participation in educational and vocational programs and by focusing on drug prevention in the community. He is attempting to improve communications among communities, other agencies and his department by participating in many community-based forums on prisons or other aspects of the criminal justice system.
"Hal has brought a new excitement, a new energy level to the department," said Walter Ridley, deputy director for operations. "He clearly identifies what our roles are going to be, he has bridged a lot of communication gaps and he has the ability to roll up his sleeves and get into the game."
Downs recalls an early morning incident last year that displays the coolness that has become Williams' trademark in handling the pressure of his job.
It was dawn on July 10, and Williams was standing with a few exhausted corrections officers and District officials amid the burnt rubble of Lorton buildings.
After hours of chaos during which 32 inmates were injured, one of whom later died, the grounds were quiet and the inmates were locked in their dormitories. Downs noticed that Williams had a .38 caliber revolver slung in a holster around his khaki pants.
"Hal, I've never seen you carrying a revolver," chided Downs.
"A well-dressed corrections administrator wouldn't show up at a major insurrection without proper attire," Williams quipped.
"Here he had just lost all of his computers, education equipment, administrative offices and the library because angry prisoners had burned the place," recalled Downs. "And he was still fresh. He still had a sense of humor. There was no anger or frustration."
That comes at other times, William said, such as in the middle of the night when his home telephone rings and a Lorton inmate whispers, "The guards are feeding us rats here." Or a voice yells, "They're beating me. They have me in shackles." He said he almost loses his cool when confronted in an airport, at a party or a club with: "Oh, you're the guy that's letting all those criminals out."
The $68,500-a-year director works six or seven days a week, is always on call and rarely has an hour for lunch. Any spare time he does have, Williams tries to spend with Tira, his wife of 17 years whom he first met in sixth grade, and with their children, Stephanie, 16, and Brian, 14, or at the 19th Street Baptist Church, where he is secretary.
To escape the pressure, Williams sometimes retreats to the basement of his Juniper Street NW house, where he immerses himself in the sounds of John Coltrane, Nancy Wilson and the Modern Jazz Quartet.
The soothing music briefly takes him away from the grimy jail cells and the maze of numbers he recites when asked to compare the court-ordered population limits of each prison facility with the scores of inmates jammed inside.
Most of the system's crowding is at Lorton's three medium-security Occoquan facilities, which held 1,970 prisoners before Barry declared a prison emergency -- 689 more than the number permitted under an order by U.S. District Judge June L. Green.
The city originally was to have reduced inmate populations at the Occoquan facilities to 1,281 by June 1, but Green has twice delayed imposition. The newest deadline is Thursday.
Williams' options to reduce the chronic crowding are limited because of the unusual situation of running a prison in another jurisdiction on land given to the District by Congress.
John F. Herrity, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, compares plans to enlarge the sprawling Lorton complex, which is on 3,000 acres in southeastern Fairfax, to "the creation of a concentration camp," and he has bitterly assailed the Barry administration for footdragging. District officials balk at building another prison in the city because Congress specifically allotted the land in Lorton for a city prison.
At the same time, many Washington residents are angry about the early release of certain inmates from crowded prisons, an action taken by Barry under increasing pressure from the courts to relieve prison conditions.
James Palmer, Williams' embattled predecessor, was sharply criticized for failing to steer the department out of its many crises and for a lack of knowledge about criminal justice issues.
Williams hopes and expects that his tenure with the agency will be more successful.
"There are all sorts of political land mines," Williams said.
"But I'm either naive enough or arrogant enough to think I can make a difference."
"He's the new kid on the block in a department with a long period of difficulties," said Anthony P. Travisano, director of the American Corrections Association, who has known Williams for 10 years.
"Hal comes in as the savior, and everyone is looking for him to make it."