THERE IS A restlessness in the D.C. Jail that is troubling. In the last few days there have been two serious disturbances inside this severely overcrowded facility. And emergency transfers of inmates to Lorton, as made over the weekend, will not make the dangers or the dilemma go away. This, and a host of classic crime- and-punishment issues that now haunt so many cities and states, are all part of what U.S. District Court Senior Judge William B. Bryant has been monitoring-- and attempting to address with everything from suggestions for jail policies to threats of contempt proceedings against Mayors Washington and Barry.
At least there has been some response from the city government since Judge Bryant's last statements:
First, there are to be emergency minimum-wage jobs for 128 Lorton prisoners eligible for parole but stuck there because they can't find work--which by regulation is required for release. This move is meant to free Lorton space for some of the 700 convicted inmates who have been in the jail waiting to be moved to Lorton. That's only a small contribution, since the jail was built for 1,355 inmates and has more than 2,400. Still, it's an innovative step that could be expanded.
Second, Sen. Arlen Specter recently toured the jail and Lorton, then persuaded the Senate Appropriations Committee to add more than $22 million to the District's budget to relieve overcrowding. If the full Senate and the House-Senate conference committee ignore protests from the Office of Management and Budget and approve the increase, it would provide minimum- security space for 200 to 500 inmates, more training programs to reduce the desperate repeat offender problem, and a few more judges to ease the burden of inmates awaiting trial in backlogged Superior Court. This is sensible help from the senator: ideas and funding. District officials welcome both.
Third, Mayor Barry has announced creation of a 16-member criminal justice board, including judges, prosecutors, public defenders, police officials and members of the D.C. Council. This necessary step may curb the blame-shifting, as well as develop a common approach to what are problems not exclusive to this city.
A new board does not a solution make, of course. In the first those two disturbances at the jail, six guards and one inmate were injured, and 80 inmates refused to return to their cells for five hours. The second time, inmates set fire to mattresses, filling several cellblocks with smoke and prompting the evacuation of 430 inmates to Lorton. "A ticking bomb," one jail administrator said recently.
So the board's plan to meet every other month won't do; the problems need more intense, immediate attention. And all the coordination in the world won't obviate the need for more money and ideas. The Specter initiative and the mayor's new board are useful beginnings, but not yet enough to satisfy Judge Bryant or the Constitution.