Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday that his administration will ask a federal judge to terminate the last vestige of more than three decades of court supervision over the D.C. jail, maintaining that conditions have improved despite three recent inmate-on-inmate stabbings that left two detainees dead and one wounded.
After an hour-long tour of the jail, Williams (D) said he hoped that the court will lift orders related to poor safety, health and environmental conditions. Corrections officials put the jail on an indefinite lockdown last weekend after the second fatal attack while the stabbings are investigated and cells searched for weapons. The heightened security, which restricts inmates' movements and activities, was in place during the mayor's visit yesterday morning.
Williams, in a news conference at the Southeast Washington facility, tried to dispel criticism from D.C. Council members, inmate advocates and union leaders that the attacks might have been related to overcrowding at the jail. In June, Senior U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant lifted a court-ordered population cap of 1,674 inmates.
"I have confidence that there is neither systemic security problems nor overcrowding at the jail," the mayor said. Williams added that he has instructed Department of Corrections Director Odie Washington to seek a court review of conditions in an effort to end 31 years of judicial oversight.
"I am ready to let the U.S. District Court assess our progress for themselves," Williams said. "I look forward to its findings."
Asserting that the jail has evolved into a "top-notch facility," the mayor said that Washington, in nearly four years at the agency's helm, has improved conditions to a point where they meet constitutional and other safeguards. D.C. Health Department inspection reports have long cited the jail for deplorable cells, faulty plumbing and lighting, rodent infestation, inadequate fire equipment and procedures, and unhealthy ventilation, heating and air conditioning.
Williams also lauded Washington for overhauling the jail's dysfunctional records office, where foul-ups and other employee problems have resulted in large numbers of inmates being held beyond their release dates and others being erroneously freed prior to completing their sentences. "It is a night-and-day difference," Williams said.
Responding to criticism that the recent violence at the detention center is indicative of a larger problem, Williams said, "We must be looking at two different jails."
Inmate advocates, who have been cautious in assessing improvement at the jail, said they have been in discussions with D.C. officials about ending the court supervision but stressed that they first want to review the agency's court motion before deciding whether to support it. Washington said he was not sure when the motion will be filed.
"Once they file, we will decide what the appropriate action plaintiffs' counsel will take on behalf of our clients," said Marie-Ann Sennett, executive director of the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project.
Sennett added, "We need to make sure that if someone is in a cell where the toilet, for instance, is clogged up and doesn't work, it is immediately fixed or the person is moved in a timely fashion."
The jail has already emerged from several layers of court oversight. In September 2001, the jail's medical and mental health unit came out of a five-year court-ordered receivership. And last June, the 17-year-old court-mandated population cap for the jail was lifted after corrections watchdogs decided not to oppose the move.
But D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, expressed misgivings yesterday about the possibility of ending the court's involvement in the operations of the jail, including oversight by a special monitor.
"If there have been improvements in environmental and health and safety, I'm sure it is due in large part to the monitor's presence," she said. "My fear would be that the court would go along and the monitoring would cease."
Patterson said she plans to introduce legislation in January that would impose a cap on the number of inmates who could be held at the jail at any one time. She said the bill could limit the population to 1,674 or slightly higher.
According to the corrections agency, the jail population averaged 2,323 in November. Patterson said that last Saturday, when the second fatal stabbing of a pretrial detainee occurred, the jail's population hit 2,425 -- one inmate more than the Williams administration has claimed is the new capacity at the facility.
In an interview, Washington said that imposing a new cap, like the one Patterson is proposing, would "spark an immediate crisis" in the District.
"It doesn't matter that you are crowded," Washington said. "What matters is how you manage the system and that you deliver basic services in a constitutional fashion."
Corrections officials said that the jail receives much-needed daily payments from the federal government of about $83 for each inmate held at the center while awaiting transfer to a federal prison. As of Dec. 17, there were 602 such inmates at the jail.