As a former nun who has spent 30 years as an advocate for inmates and their families across the nation, Pauline Sullivan was torn over the idea of letting Corrections Corp. of America (CCA) build a 1,200-bed private prison at the southern tip of Ward 8. She had heard too many horror stories from families of D.C. inmates in CCA's custody in Youngstown, Ohio, Torrence, N.M., and Florence, Ariz., to support giving the company another contract. She would have preferred to see D.C. inmates housed in a federal institution, but that wasn't an option. So after much thought, Sullivan reluctantly lent her voice in support of the Ward 8 plan.

The problem with the CCA prison planned for Ward 8 isn't just the history of violence at the company's facilities. It isn't just that CCA has spent millions buying the support of local residents and elected officials. And it isn't just that a prison at Oxon Cove would turn Ward 8 into the city's dumping ground. It's that the District isn't being allowed to decide this for itself. The decision is being made piecemeal by a variety of federal institutions without more than incidental input from the District.

The president's revitalization act mandated the closure of Lorton, the National Park Service swapped land for a parcel owned by CCA and the Bureau of Prisons will award the contract. The only city body that has any official say will be the D.C. Zoning Commission, because the land CCA wants to build on is unzoned.

CCA's proposal is one of an unknown number of bids being evaluated by the Bureau of Prisons for a contract to house D.C. inmates after Lorton is shut in 2001. District residents deserve some say in this process. These are our people, our money. We deserve to choose our own site and a contractor we trust. We should have a say in the programs that are offered and the staff that is hired. Instead, we are losing control of our inmates -- where they are housed, how they are treated, who is responsible for them and who profits from their care.

As the debate about the Ward 8 prison has unfolded, no one has been asking the most important questions:

How does CCA stack up against other private prison companies and federal and state institutions?

What is the recidivism rate among CCA inmates?

How much violence against inmates and guards goes on in its institutions?

How does CCA select, train and pay its guards?

Instead of answering these questions, the debate has centered on claims by one side that inmates should be kept close to their families and by the other that the prison would stigmatize Ward 8 beyond repair.

The District now ships inmates to Montana, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota and nearly a dozen other states. Cost and distance make family visits almost impossible. There has to be a better way.

But a prison at Oxon Cove would cement the perception that Ward 8 equals crime and poverty. A prison in Ward 8 would embarrass the middle class people who are struggling to preserve their neighborhoods, while the money the prison would generate would go largely to a few local contractors. Many, if not most, of the 400 new corrections-officer positions would go to officers being riffed at Lorton -- they have right of first refusal. A prison probably won't help Ward 8 get a supermarket, fix its housing or attract more stores. All three economic development corporations east of the Anacostia River oppose a prison.

So what is the answer?

CCA's solution since Day One has been money. It has promised a $1 million fund for minority business loans, a vocational training institute and an east-of-the-river satellite campus for the University of the District of Columbia.

But the idea of running a prison for profit is enough to scare some people. Add to that the scathing indictment of CCA by D.C. Corrections trustee John Clark, who spent four months investigating the murders, assaults and escapes at the Youngstown prison.

Clark's 300-page report reveals a corporate culture reluctant to change and slow to open itself to public scrutiny. Inmates were subject to an extended "reign of humiliation" where "harsh and humiliating procedures" were employed systematically. Clark found inmates with no constructive activity to occupy their days, others who had access to razor blades and handcuff keys and still others who attempted suicide by swallowing drain opener or setting fire to their cells.

That's how serious this decision is. The District needs a seat at the table.

-- Rebecca Charry

is a reporter for the Common Denominator.