Alexandria Sheriff Michael Norris has his problems.
His jail is so old and run down that a federal judge last year ordered him to improve its "inhumane" conditions. During renovation, most prisoners have been kept in the police department's lockup, but their numbers - 104 - exceed the legal limit. There have been escapes.
And though Norris has some modern notions of social reform and criminal rehabilitation, he says he keeps coming up against a community that wants the best jail money can buy - in somebody's else's neighborhood.
This week, Noris proposed a solution that quickly drew cries of surprise and dismay. He suggested that the 10-year-old John Adams Middle School, located in an affluent section of the city's populous West End, be converted into a model correctional center to relieve pressure on the aging jail in Old Town.
"Oh, for God's sake, in the middle of the neighborhood?" said Sandra Everist, a resident of the Seminary Heights townhouse development near the Rayburn Street school.
"It's going to be a cold day in hell before a jail comes in here," said Patrick Holland, president of the Seminary West Civic Association, which represents several groups in the area.
"We don't need a Holiday Inn for prisoners, or a monument to the incumbent sheriff," said Holland, who was defeated by Norris in 1977 after a bitter campaign.
For months Norris, a Republican seeking his party's nomination to run for the General Assembly, has been urging a larger facility for his department, which handles 2,300 prisoners annually. Most of the prisoners have committed nonviolent crimes, or cannot pay enough bail to be freed, Norris said.
Because the John School is tentatively scheduled to be closed next year as part of the school system's consolidation program, Norris suggested in a memo to City Manager Douglas Harman that a "feasibility" study might be made of the school with a view toward coverting it into a jail.
"People have got to realize that this is a community problem," Norris said yesterday. "We have the highest recidivism (repeat offender) rate in the metropolitan area, and we also offer more social services than any other local jurisdiction.
"I think we can bring the two things together, apply the social services to the repeat offenders, and try to reduce crime," he said.
At a correctional center, prisoners would receive education and social counseling, he said.
By contrast, the police lockup now in sue has had three escapes in as many months. Norris also said he fears that despite $350,000 in court-ordered repairs, the regular jail will be inadequate when finished.
Although Old Town property values have soared in the vicinity of the existing jail, residents of the west end of the city where Norris would like to create his correctional center remain skeptical.
"I am 185 percent opposed to it," said Gary Weinstein, a lawyer whose townhouse backs up to the John Adams playing field. "It's a selfish interest, sure, but if the jail comes in, where will the kids play?"
"I guess it depends on whose ox is being gored," mused Fritz Hansen, who has lived in the neighborhood for eight years. "I guess people are concerned about property values, that's usually what gets mentioned when people talk about halfway houses and public buildings coming into a neighborhood. But it doesn't seem to have affected Old Town very much, does it?"
Pat Holland, however, remains unconvinced. "We are going to fight like hell to keep the jail out. The very suggestion is irresponsible," he said.