Alarmed by crowding at Lorton Reformatory and the D.C. Jail, city officials have developed an unusual work-release program for at least 60 inmates who have been denied parole until now because they were too hard to place in outside jobs: The city will temporarily hire them.
In seeking participants, city officials generally will look first at inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes. But the pool of potential participants also includes convicted rapists, armed robbers and murderers, who were described by some city officials involved in the planning as "the dregs" and "the bottom of the barrel."
Inmates taking part in the $240,000 program will be paroled and assigned to menial jobs in the Public Works Department and the Housing and Community Development Department for 12 weeks. The Department of Employment Services, meanwhile, will attempt to place them in permanent jobs in the private sector.
Officials involved in the planning said yesterday that every effort will be made to exclude hard-core convicted criminals who might pose the greatest risk and danger. But one official who asked not to be named said, "It may come down to having to look at that group."
Matthew Shannon, director of the Employment Services Department, said the city will provide prospective employers with detailed information about the criminal records of parolees.
"If an employer said 'I do not want an armed robber or a rapist or a murderer working in my establishment,' we certainly would not refer that particular person to that employer," Shannon said.
Mayor Marion Barry this week endorsed federally financed construction of a prison in the District and ordered his aides to study ways of temporarily relieving crowding in existing facilities, which is reaching crisis proportions. Lorton Reformatory held 80 more inmates this week than its official capacity, while the D.C. Jail's population was twice its official capacity.
Inmates who may qualify for the program, which does not require City Council action, are being held at Lorton, in southern Fairfax County, and at a city-run detention center at 1010 North Capitol St.
These prisoners, many of them convicted of theft, burglary or drug-related crimes, have served their minimum sentences and technically are qualified for parole, provided they can find an outside job and a place to live and arrange for community support services.
Under the program, which begins March 18, inmates will perform such tasks as cutting grass, raking leaves and cleaning public property. They will be paid by the Department of Employment Services, which will have chief responsibility for finding them permanent jobs.
The 12-week program will begin with 60 inmates. Officials said they had not decided whether participants will be replaced when they find permanent jobs, whether hard-to-place inmates will receive an extension or return to prison and whether the program will be repeated.
Shannon met Wednesday with a half-dozen officials from the Departments of Corrections, Public Works and Personnel and the D.C. Parole Board to map out the program.
Willie R. Hasson, executive officer of the parole board, said that most of the officials who attended the meeting were "quite enthusiastic" about the program.
However, another official who attended the meeting described the mood as "apprehensive."
"They think it's a good idea, but because of the nature of the background of the men to be released , they're worried it might not work out," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "Because of the combination of problems this group has, none of the traditional programs can do anything with them."
The city has previously provided ex-convicts with temporary employment, including jobs in the Public Works Department and a program to hire about 30 ex-convicts to help rehabilitate vacant units in District public housing projects. However, this is the first time the city has mounted a large-scale government work-release program geared to he hardest-to-place inmates.
Officials said that 19 inmates have already been selected for the program.
Meanwhile, the D.C. Coalition for Justice, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Conference of Black Lawyers, yesterday criticized Barry for "acquiescing" to pressure from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and others to go along with a new jail. They proposed instead that the city look more seriously at alternatives to prison sentences for some offenders.