Marion Barry leaned into the microphone and in measured, raspy words told the D.C. Zoning Commission why he thinks a sprawling, concrete-and-steel prison in Southwest Washington would help stabilize families in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

"It is in the best interest to house inmates close to their families because inmates with strong family support have less trouble while they are incarcerated and are more likely to take advantage of education and job-training programs," the former D.C. mayor testified during the recent public hearing. He added that the 1,200-bed, privately built facility would create about 450 jobs and provide inmates with education and drug treatment.

It was a political dart for the city's new mayor, Anthony A. Williams, whose vision of redevelopment for poverty-stricken areas of Ward 8 includes shopping centers, new schools and city offices -- and specifically not a prison, which Williams says would convey the wrong image.

But Barry's testimony reflected more than a simple disagreement between politicians, or even the symbolic differences between his brand of community activism and Williams's less emotional, more businesslike approach to governing.

The former mayor, after shunning publicity in the months since he left office, has emerged as the point man for the Corrections Corp. of America in a volatile debate that has Ward 8 residents wrestling with questions that cut to the core of a struggling community's vision of itself.

Among them: Is a $50 million prison really the best symbol of economic opportunity at a time when so many low-income families in the largely black area are battling to keep their children out of trouble? And how much compassion should a community show to inmates who represent both its problems and its potential?

It is a debate that often has split people along economic lines within the black community in eastern sections of the District, with middle-class residents speaking out against the prison and in favor of Williams's vision of redevelopment. Those with lower incomes -- who studies indicate are more likely to have friends or family members in prison -- stress the job opportunities and family ties that a new D.C. prison would foster.

For the most part, they are the people being marshaled by CCA officials and Barry, who has given motivational speeches in CCA prisons but says he is not a paid lobbyist for the company.

As Barry testified at the hearing, two dozen women -- all supporters of the prison -- walked single-file to seats behind him in the auditorium at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Each wore a T-shirt that read, "Inmates Are People Too -- Keep Our Families Together."

The women -- all Ward 8 residents -- said they favor CCA's proposal to build the prison on land overlooking Interstate 295 near the southern tip of the city because they have relatives who are incarcerated outside Washington and would like to be closer to their loved ones.

Meanwhile, Barry was casting the proposed correctional facility -- he doesn't call it a prison -- as an economic boon.

"It is in the District's best interest to keep the jobs and economic benefits that a correctional facility generates," he said. "If you go to [Lorton] today, you will find many correctional officers -- District residents -- who will tell you this is the best job they've ever had."

Under a 1997 federal plan that called for the closing of the District's Lorton Correctional Complex in Fairfax County by the end of 2001, D.C. inmates gradually have been moved to other prisons within 300 miles of the city.

The federal plan initially called for a 2,200-bed, privately run prison to be built in the District as Lorton's replacement. But the federal Bureau of Prisons altered the plan last November, after bureau officials expressed concern about security and public safety at several privately run prisons across the country, including a CCA facility in Ohio that houses D.C. inmates.

The new plan calls for two prisons: one for about 1,200 men and another for about 1,000 men, women and youths. CCA has the inside track to win the contract for the larger facility, which would be built in Ward 8 if it is approved by the city's Zoning Commission and then by the prisons bureau. The bureau awarded a contract in April to Cornell Corrections Inc., a private corrections firm, to build and operate a facility in Philipsburg, Pa., for 1,050 inmates. D.C. Department of Corrections employees will have the right of first refusal for jobs at these facilities.

Williams, who cannot veto the Ward 8 prison plan, has said that he does not oppose the idea of building a prison in the District but that he does not believe it should be placed in that area of the city. The mayor has not specified where he believes a prison should be built.

"I think we can send a message of economic development in other ways," the mayor said. "I'd like to restore a shopping center. I'd like to see redevelopment along Martin Luther King Avenue. I'd like to see more important things than putting a prison there. I am confident that during my administration, we will see strong economic development east of the [Anacostia] river, and in particular, Ward 8."

Ward 8 is bordered by Naylor and Morris roads on the north, the Anacostia and Potomac rivers on the west, and by Southern Avenue and the Prince George's County line on the south and east. It's a community of extremes -- from houses on hills with expensive landscapes overlooking the Anacostia River to the huge clusters of low-rise public housing.

Some Ward 8 residents say the emotional debate over whether to build a prison there has pitted middle-class residents who agree with Williams against lower-income people who are following Barry's lead. These residents say the debate reflects the tension between the haves and have-nots in the black community east of the Anacostia River.

Greg Rhett, an economic development consultant who lives in Ward 7 and opposes the prison, said that in using Barry as a front man, CCA is trying to exploit such divisions in the black community to push its proposal -- a notion rejected by Barry and CCA officials.

"My neighbors [who support the prison] have been hoodwinked and bamboozled by the politics that have overwhelmed this community for years," Rhett said. "CCA has played the race card and the class card. That's their tactic. . . . It's the old divide and conquer."

Rhett sees the proposed prison as a threat to public safety.

"How would parents feel, not knowing if their children are safe if there is an escape?" he asked. "You [would] have murderers, rapists and child molesters in there."

Howard Croft, an Anacostia resident who is a former member of the parole board and once directed a college education program at Lorton, agreed that "CCA is trying to manipulate what is perceived to be class and color differences in the black community. . . . CCA is saying that if people don't support the prison in Ward 8, then they're going to have to fly all around the country to see their loved ones" in other prisons.

"They can say all they want; they can put perfume all over it," Croft said, "but prisons are nuisances."

Joseph Johnson, a member of the CCA board of directors, denied that the prison company is trying to create a class division. "This is not about race and class," Johnson said. "This is about jobs and rehabilitation. This is being driven by people who understand the pain of having family members who are incarcerated away from them. It's intellectually dishonest to try to use the old adage `divide and conquer.' "

Winifred Freeman, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, scoffs at the suggestions by Barry and CCA officials that the prison's proposed education programs -- which would involve the University of the District of Columbia -- would actually rehabilitate many inmates.

Freeman and other prison opponents also are skeptical of Barry's motivation in pushing the prison, saying that in nearly two decades as mayor, he had ample opportunity to bring significant economic development to Ward 8 and did little.

"He had 16 years to do something positive for this community, and now this is how he brings us economic development: He brings us a prison," said Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a Ward 8 resident whose father, Eugene Kinlow, is on the presidentially appointed D.C. financial control board.

"They are doing this for the money, not for the people," the younger Kinlow said. "This is an environmental injustice, and they are trying to force it on us."

A walk through parts of Ward 8 -- along sidewalks, in apartment buildings and on front porches -- yields similar opinions, but also those of residents who believe just as strongly that the prison is a great idea.

Sam Foster has lived on Elmira Street SE, less than a mile from the prison site, for 15 years. Foster, who opened a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Ward 8 in 1979, said his life was turned around in 1970, when he entered an alcohol treatment program after serving five years in prison.

"Prison is a lonely place for those people who are away from their families," said Foster, leaning on the fence in front of his home. "I support a correctional facility here because it will also bring economic development to this area."

Joyce Scott, executive director of a group called Citizens for a Progressive Ward 8, said, "We need this facility in the District so that inmates can receive the support they need to from their family members."

Scott, one of the leading advocates for a prison, said it would bring jobs and economic development to a ward that has been ignored for years by D.C. politicians. She doesn't, however, blame Barry for the lack of progress in her part of town, saying that it was difficult for the former mayor to attract businesses to Ward 8 because crime was rampant during his tenure.

She said she knows several people who are training to become corrections officers and others who have relatives who are incarcerated and want them close to home.

Scott had a son who was in Lorton on a drug conviction and who she said was released without the type of rehabilitation that she believes the CCA prison would provide. He later was shot, she said, adding that it took that violent encounter for him to decide to straighten out his life.

Hannah Hawkins, who for 20 years has run a social service center just off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, where she feeds children as part of her community offerings, also sees the prison as offering hope to troubled families.

Middle-income residents who oppose the prison "do not represent the masses of people in Ward 8," Hawkins said. "These children are poor, deprived and hurting, and I have to tell these children that they can't see their mothers and fathers because they're [in prison] in Ohio."

Other residents, including some whose family members have been in prison, say that a prison isn't their idea of economic development and that they aren't so concerned about showing compassion to inmates and their families.

Robin Ijames, president of the tenants' association at the Wingates apartments on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SW, said that "our residents can't get first-time home-buying opportunities, but they want to give us a jail."

"My father was locked up for 10 years at Lorton, and I can count the times I saw him," Ijames said. "But I have no sympathy [for the relatives of inmates]. You do the crime, you do the time. . . . I believe in keeping family close, but . . . e-mail them."

Staff writer Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Joyce Scott, executive director of Citizens for a Progressive Ward 8, is a leading prison advocate. She is with her brother Kevin Spivey, a former inmate.

CAPTION: Winifred Freeman, an advisory neighborhood commissioner, and economic development consultant Greg Rhett outline their opposition to the prison plan.

CAPTION: Activist Joyce Scott says she supports a prison in Ward 8 "so that inmates can receive the support they need to from their family members."

CAPTION: Robin Ijames, president of a tenants association in Ward 8, says that a prison is not desirable economic development for the area.

CAPTION: Sam Foster, who lives less than a mile from the proposed site, says the prison would create needed jobs.