Conditions in the D.C. Jail have been the subject of litigation in U.S. District Judge William Bryant's courtroom for more than l2 years. It has not been easy, and the often frustrated but always firm jurist has forced steady progress on officials responsible for the facility. The public demands harsher sentences and mandatory minimums for offenders, but balks at providing the funds necessary for a safe, decent and well-run jail. But after repeated setbacks, there has been recent progress on three fronts: overcrowding has been reduced slightly, the Senate has recommended the appropriation of $22 million for correctional facilities and the mayor has announced the creation of a criminal justice board to coordinate efforts to improve conditions in these facilities.
But the jail is only part of the problem. It is a place of confinement for those convicted of misdemeanors and those awaiting trial. Across the river in Lorton is the District's prison for convicted felons and, not surprisingly that institution has some of the same problems of overcrowding, sanitation and security as the jail. Conditions at Lorton are the subject of a lawsuit brought by inmates in l980. This case has been before U.S. District Judge June Green, who has twice ordered that improvements be made. In April l982 city officials agreed to a settlement and promised to make specific changes at the prison. Security was to be beefed up, for example, food and sanitary conditions improved and overcrowding alleviated. Eight months later attorneys for the prisoners were back in court, and Judge Green threatened fines and appointment of a master to run the facility if the April agreement wasn't implemented. Now, after a third trip to court, plaintiffs' attorneys and the city have reached another accord. Specific steps will be taken to make 20 improvements at the facility and to reduce overcrowding; deadlines will be set for each step, and daily fines will be imposed if deadlines are not met.
The most difficult problem, as it is in the jail, is overcrowding. At Lorton, solutions are less obvious, because the inmates are not persons awaiting trial who can be released on bail, or those convicted of minor offenses who can be freed with little risk. Lorton is an institution for those convicted of felonies who are serving terms set by a court. The city has promised to bring the medium-security facilities at the institution to within 5 percent of capacity, which means that about 300 prisoners will have to be moved or paroled. Some are ready for parole and are just part of a backlog awaiting hearings. Others must be kept and relocated to other facilities on the grounds. City officials say this can be done within 90 days and without creating a threat to public safety. Plaintiffs' attorneys see in the government a new interest in prison reform and a new determination to make the necessary changes. Now the city has 90 days to show that this hope was not an unrealistic one. Prompt implementation of this week's agreement will confirm a new spirit and concern on the part of city officials for the basic needs of offenders in their custody.