A prisoners' advocacy group filed a lawsuit against the District government yesterday claiming that crowded conditions are endangering inmates at the D.C. jail.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of seven inmates by the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project, seeks a court order to force Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to set a population cap at the jail. It accuses the mayor of violating a law passed by the D.C. Council that was meant to ease crowding and improve conditions and operations.
The suit revives a long-standing controversy over the jail's population. The jail was subject to a court-ordered population cap of 1,674 inmates until June 2002, when a federal judge lifted a limit after 17 years. According to the lawsuit, the jail now has between 2,300 and 2,400 inmates.
The advocacy group said that Williams has not complied with a law that took effect Jan. 30, 2004. The law, passed in the aftermath of two fatal stabbings of inmates, required Williams to set a population cap based on recommendations of an independent consultant.
A firm hired by Williams suggested in April 2004 that the jail's population be fixed at 1,958 to 2,164 inmates. The firm, Pulitzer/Bogard & Associates, said that it did not intend, however, for that to immediately become a legal limit, saying that it also wanted the city to consider other steps to address the population issue.
The lawsuit requests that the city be held by the firm's standard, saying that the crowding is so bad that the seven plaintiffs are "fearful for their safety." The case was filed in D.C. Superior Court.
Mayoral spokesman Vincent Morris said that the administration is working to comply with the law.
"I think it's sort of a goal that everyone is trying to meet, but it's complicated by the fact that the city doesn't have total control over how many inmates end up there," Morris said. "There are so many factors that are beyond the city's control. It's the nature of crime."
Morris said Williams would work to increase funding for the Department of Corrections to provide more supervision and activities for the inmates.
"It'd be great if you could wave a magic wand and decrease the prison population by 50 percent," he said. "I think the mayor will continue to work to try and balance the needs for sentencing to keep the city safe and also not overpopulate the jail."
Philip Fornaci, executive director of the advocacy group, said the law requires that the consultant's figure be adopted. "It's absolutely a binding requirement," he said.
In the short term, Fornaci said, the D.C. Department of Corrections should rent jail space at other facilities.
Fornaci also appeared before a D.C. Council committee yesterday, where he raised concerns about medical services at the jail. The crowding has strained health care, Fornaci said.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who introduced the 2004 jail legislation, said the lawsuit could once again bring the Corrections Department under a court's supervision.
"That would be a step backward," Patterson said. "In the short term, the mayor and his team can do what they haven't done -- which is to develop a medium-term plan because there are about 400 inmates that they need to house somewhere else."