THE D.C. ZONING Commission will soon decide on the Corrections Corporation of America's application to build a 1,200-bed prison facility on 42 acres in the Southwest area of Ward 8. The for-profit prison proposal has become a hot-button issue, pitting neighborhood against neighborhood east of the Anacostia River and affecting the entire city.
Because Mayor Anthony Williams opposes and former mayor Marion Barry supports a prison in Ward 8, the issue might be mistaken for a political struggle. That is not the case. Mayor Williams is joined in his opposition by both east-of-the-river council members -- Ward 8's Sandy Allen (D) and Ward 7's Kevin Chavous (D) -- several advisory neighborhood commissioners, school board member Tanya Kinlow, and a number of community organizations and ward residents. They contend that the impoverished ward needs economic development and investment in shopping centers, schools and offices that attract middle-class residents, not a new prison to join with the city's Blue Plains waste treatment plant, St. Elizabeths Hospital and much public housing.
Mr. Barry counts among his supporters Corrections Corporation of America officials, former at-large council member John Ray (now a paid CCA lobbyist) and a number of Ward 8 activists and residents. Their central argument is that a prison would create more than 400 jobs and keep inmates close to home.
We think the views of the prison opponents -- especially the mayor's and council members Chavous and Allen, whose constituents are most affected by the proposed facility -- deserve great weight. Yesterday the mayor said through a spokesman that he wants to work with the federal Bureau of Prisons on an overall strategy for housing District inmates. Currently, the spokesman said, city officials are conducting an inventory of city properties and potential regional sites to find a prison location "within reasonable driving range for families." That may be the better way to go. The Zoning Commission and federal Bureau of Prisons, which must approve the Ward 8 proposal, should listen to the city's elected leaders.