District inmates at a new Virginia prison have been subjected to stricter security than expected and have had inadequate access to showers, phones, medical care and a range of other basic services, according to advocates who are pressing D.C. officials to improve conditions at the Sussex II facility.
The prison in Waverly, near the North Carolina border, has accepted 1,267 D.C. inmates as part of the ongoing initiative to close the District's Lorton Correctional Complex in southern Fairfax County by 2001.
Eric R. Lotke, executive director of the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project, said in a letter last month to District corrections officials that Sussex II is being operated as a maximum-security prison, even though most of the D.C. inmates there came from medium-security facilities at Lorton or at a privately run prison in Youngstown, Ohio.
The prisoners at Sussex II, all men, are confined to their cells at least 22 hours a day, creating the potential for disorder during the one hour each day that inmates have access to showers and telephones, Lotke wrote.
In addition, inmates at Sussex II have had inadequate access to work and educational programs, medical care, organized worship and their attorneys, Lotke said. His letter also says that short- and long-term prisoners have been improperly roomed together and alleges that prisoners have been subjected to unnecessary uses of force, tear gas and electric stun guns.
D.C. corrections officials said yesterday that they were evaluating conditions at Sussex II and were talking with Virginia prison authorities about the treatment of inmates.
"Virginia authorities have agreed to do some modifications," said D.C. Deputy Corrections Trustee Devon Brown, adding that those changes will include providing inmates with more educational opportunities and more time out of their cells.
"Director Odie Washington has received the D.C. prisoners' project correspondence," said Bill Meeks, a D.C. Corrections Department spokesman. "Each and every allegation will be investigated, and appropriate action will be taken or pursued on all legitimate claims."
Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, did not return several phone messages yesterday.
Under a 30-month, nonrenewable contract, the District is paying Virginia about $64 a day per prisoner. The inmates were moved to Sussex II in twice-a-week transfers between January, when the prison opened, and May.
The criticism of Sussex II is the latest in a series of complaints that has accompanied the transfer of D.C. inmates to private or state-run prisons outside the Washington area, as mandated by a 1997 federal law designed to close Lorton and to move all D.C. inmates to federal control.
Last spring, officials from the District and Nashville-based Corrections Corp. of America agreed to pay $1.65 million to settle a lawsuit filed in 1997 on behalf of D.C. inmates at the CCA-run prison in Ohio. That suit alleged that prisoners were abused, denied adequate medical care and improperly placed with dangerous counterparts.
Lotke said his organization may file a lawsuit similar to its 1997 case concerning the Ohio prison if conditions at Sussex II do not improve. Lotke said the contract between the District and Virginia stipulates that prisoners be held in "close or medium security" and is not being followed.
"This is not bellyaching about bad food," Lotke said. "It's about sitting in your cell all day long. The contract calls for education and access to work."