Before coming to the District in 1997, the current interim director of the D.C. Department of Corrections was the head of a decrepit, dysfunctional jail in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the failure to bring the violent facility into compliance ultimately led to a contempt-of-court finding.
A little more than a year after his arrival in Washington, S. Elwood York Jr. took charge of thousands of D.C. inmates who were being relocated to prisons across the country, and once again, York found himself at the center of controversy as reports of prisoner abuse, and even deaths, led to lawsuits and investigations.
Now, as the District faces a civil action over its failure to reduce overcrowding at the jail and improve basic inmate services, Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) is searching for a person to run the corrections department. And York wants the job.
It is an important decision for the mayor, given the agency's troubled history and lingering problems. A senior mayoral aide said Friday that an announcement is likely "soon."
When the jail emerged from decades of court supervision a few years ago, it was heralded as a watershed moment, and it did reflect improvements at the facility. But freed from a court-mandated cap, the jail population increased by hundreds.
Conditions deteriorated and violence increased, and more than a year ago, the D.C. Council stepped in and enacted a cap on the jail population. But city officials have yet to impose the limit. As of Friday, the jail population stood at 2,354, almost 200 inmates above the limit.
Odie Washington, who was director for almost six years, stepped down in February, and since then, several candidates have been considered, according to officials who have been following the search.
York, 49, is one of the candidates, and that has alarmed advocates for prisoner rights who say he has been part of the agency's leadership through turmoil and failure and should not merit serious consideration.
But Edward D. Reiskin, the deputy mayor for public safety, was complimentary when asked about York's performance as interim director. Others who have worked with him in recent months said they are encouraged and would not necessarily oppose his appointment.
In an interview, York defended his record. He said he inherited the problems in the Virgin Islands and the District and that, far from being blamed for them, he should be credited with taking steps to resolve them.
His efforts since taking temporary charge of the department in February are a better measure, he said, of his fitness for the job. Under his leadership, the department has been providing "more services than ever" to inmates, he said.
"I think the people of the District of Columbia deserve a better shake than they're getting," said York, who was a member of the corrections department leadership for all but several months of the past eight years. "I'm fixing it and I will continue to fix it, if I'm allowed."
Philip Fornaci, executive director of D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project, said that nothing during York's brief tenure as interim director or his other corrections assignments indicates a willingness to undertake the kind of changes the department needs.
"There are some really terrible conditions in the D.C. jail in terms of overcrowding and medical problems," Fornaci said. "But there's no sense of urgency in the department, and we don't see that changing with him in the leadership role."
Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of Legal Aid in the District, was the head of the prisoners' project for several years in the 1990s, when the organization began challenging the prisoner relocation program.
York, he said, "really represents a time when the department was failing." First as the agency's top lawyer and then as the monitor of the relocation program, York was part of the power structure and therefore part of the agency's problems, said Smith, who is on the board of the prisoners' project.
The mayor should reach outside the agency's leadership for a new director, Smith said. "I don't mean to suggest that it's all Elwood's fault," he said. "My concern is about him or anyone else who has played a leadership role in the last 10 years."
Edward D. Reiskin, deputy mayor for public safety, said that Williams is weighing his choices for a permanent corrections director but that the mayor and City Administrator Robert C. Bobb are satisfied with York's work.
"He has helped maintain stability for the agency in a time that can often be very difficult," Reiskin said in an e-mail. "He has not merely maintained the status quo, but has proactively worked on improvements."
The head of an organization that has a longstanding relationship with the jail said that York has been much more open to new ideas than his predecessor but that the test will be whether the rest of the department's leadership picks up on that.
"The job is much bigger than one person," said the organization official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing relationships with agency officials. "It's the next level of leadership and the one after that that needs to be looked at to make sure they're all on board."
Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), a key member of the D.C. Council and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he is open to York, who he said has been more responsive than his predecessor and appears to want to address the overcrowding.
Since being named interim director, York has begun submitting the reports required under the jail cap law, which Mendelson called a hopeful sign. "They're doing more under Elwood than they were under Odie Washington," he said. "They're not thumbing their noses at us."
Encouraged as he is, Mendelson said that if the mayor does appoint York, members of the council's Judiciary Committee will examine York's tenure in the Virgin Islands and in the District.
They will find a trail of civil rights litigation, beginning in the Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory. In the early 1990s, jail conditions there drew the attention of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a class-action suit in 1994, claiming dangerous, inhumane and unconstitutional conditions.
At the time, York was the principal assistant attorney general for the island. The territorial government agreed to remedy conditions at the small jail, and in 1995, York took on the additional duties of running the facility, which had long had a reputation for violence and squalor.
Up to six men were being housed in cells designed for one person, forcing some to sleep with their heads pressed up against the toilet, according to the court records. Violent inmates were mixed with nonviolent inmates. Medical services were inadequate, and mental health services were nonexistent.
In late 1996, the ACLU went back to court, and in January 1997, a federal judge determined that the conditions were still abysmal and found several top officials in contempt of court. York, who had been named in the contempt motion, stepped down at the end of 1996 to move back to the United States, so he was not among those cited by the judge.
At the D.C. Department of Corrections, he was initially the agency's top lawyer. In 1998, he was put in charge of the relocations of thousands of D.C. inmates who had to be temporarily moved because of the planned closure of Lorton, the city's prison complex in Virginia.
The city spent tens of millions of dollars to place prisoners in a mix of state-run and privately run prisons.
Problems emerged at the outset, from complaints about lost records and lack of mental health care to reports of physical abuse, and the troubles continued.
In a 39-page report completed in 2001, the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project criticized the external confinement and monitoring unit, headed by York, for doing little to prevent the problems and for failing to conduct prompt and thorough investigations when the problems emerged.
York said he did not create the mess but was ordered to clean it up. "I actually had very little to do with external confinement," he said, "until it went to hell."