A cutback in visiting hours at the D.C. Jail was protested yesterday by about two dozen chanting, praying demonstrators who demanded a return to an all-day schedule.
Members of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), said eliminating morning visiting hours has led to longer waiting lines and shorter tempers among inmates, and generally has disrupted the lives of families.
"This shortsighted move that officials say will save money has affected people's access to prisoners," said Dianne Lowery, chairwoman of the D.C. chapter of CURE, which has about 300 members.
Before Sept. 4, when the new schedule went into effect, visiting hours at the jail were 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
The 12-hour schedule allowed families, in particular the elderly, to visit the jail in the morning, members of the group said.
The new schedule, noon to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, is the same one the jail had prior to 1985, when a dramatic rise in the inmate population forced the Department of Corrections to increase visiting hours.
Now, with the prison population about 1,600 because of a court-mandated ceiling, officials decided to return to the old system.
The change, officials said, will result in un-specified cost savings and greater efficiency.
The department estimates it takes 11 or 12 corrections officers to monitor visiting hours, and now they will be free to perform other tasks in the morning.
Moreover, the department said visiting hours at the D.C. Jail are more liberal than at any other correctional institution in the region.
"It's just not a major issue," Pat Wheeler, a spokeswoman for the department, said Friday. "This thing has been studied and looked at for some time. We really feel this is not causing any hardship, and will result in more efficient use of man-hours."
But for those who took part in the half-mile march that culminated with the protest outside the jail in Southeast, the department's analysis provided little comfort.
Visiting days already are governed by the alphabet -- yesterday was for inmates whose last names begin with the letters Q-Z -- and they said that made it difficult even before the hours were changed.
CURE members said the change has resulted in longer lines during the afternoon, in particular between 4 and 7 p.m., when most family members visit.
They claimed that corrections officials are trying to hide the problem by moving the waiting lines inside, where they cannot be seen.
In a statement last week, David Roach, administrator of the jail, denied this. He said "guest lines are moving smoothly, the visiting room is not crowded and the weekly number of visitors has remained constant."
Rosemarie Whitaker, whose son is being held in the D.C. Jail, said the new schedule has made it difficult for her because she suffers from chronic back pain.
She said she used to visit her son twice a week in the mornings, when there was seldom a wait.
"I would be able to come in the bus in the morning, when it wasn't crowded. Now you can't," Whitaker said. "You can't tell the people, 'I'm disabled, can you let me in line?' "