District corrections officials, alarmed by a record prison population, have asked Mayor Marion Barry to use his emergency powers to release more than 1,000 inmates from the city's prisons.
Barry is expected to approve the measure over the weekend, according to his spokesman, potentially clearing the way for some prisoners' release as early as next week.
If approved, the release would be the second in less than six months under a new law that allows the mayor to ease prison crowding by declaring an emergency after the prison population has exceeded the system's designed capacity for 30 consecutive days.
The District's prisons in recent years have been perpetually crowded, raising questions of how the city will house its criminal population.
Corrections Director Hallem H. Williams Jr. and Corporation Counsel Frederick D. Cooke Jr. submitted to Barry on Nov. 27 a report urging the emegency release. Neither Williams nor Cooke was available for comment yesterday and Barry's spokesman, John White, refused to disclose details of the report.
In a prepared statement released by White last night, Barry said: "I am concerned about public safety and the reaction to another round of emergency releases. I intend to assess all of the options carefully before deciding what options to take."
The statement continued, "the prison population continues to grow at an alarming rate," and the emergency release law "provides a useful management tool for temporarily stemming this rapid growth."
City officials acknowledged yesterday that record numbers of drug arrests -- especially from Operation Clean Sweep, a 15-month-old crackdown on drug users and dealers -- have pushed the inmate population to a record high.
Officials said yesterday that 8,043 inmates were crammed into the city's prisons, compared with 7,950 inmates who were held in prisons and halfway houses when Barry declared the city's first prison crowding emergency July 3. The city's system of prisons -- all of which are in suburban Maryland and Virginia -- is designed to hold about 7,350 inmates under a regulation that gives each inmate about 60 square feet of living space.
Under the first emergency release caused by a program that began in July and ended in October, 815 inmates were released. Of those released early, 57 were sent back to prison.
Short-term solutions to crowding lie in building more prisons, White said, but "permanent, long-term solutions are societal changes in terms of ways to combat crime."