A 22-acre tract near Children's Hospital in Northwest Washington was among three sites listed yesterday by the Justice Department as prime locations for a new prison in the District.
The Northwest site, bounded by Michigan Avenue and North Capitol, Channing and First streets, was suggested as the site for a new prison by District officials, who previously had rejected the other two sites -- the old D.C. Jail tract at 19th Street and Independence Avenue SE, and the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Anacostia.
An extensive filtration system for the Army Corps of Engineers' adjacent McMillan Reservoir is now on the Northwest site, which would become available to the city on Oct. 1.
The sites were named in a letter from Deputy Attorney General D. Lowell Jensen delivered late yesterday to Mayor Marion Barry. Barry had requested a list of sites during a Jan. 16 meeting with Jensen, saying he would begin design and construction on a new prison in the District immediately after the government came up with the sites.
Since then, representatives of the city and federal governments have studied dozens of federally owned sites to come up with the list of three turned over yesterday.
In his letter, Jensen also told Barry that the city should immediately place temporary prison facilities at the old D.C. Jail site and indicated that the city will have to build more than one new prison in the District to provide the additional 2,000 minimum- and medium security beds that the federal government says are needed. The city has approved plans to build a $14 million ambulatory care wing and emergency room addition to D.C. General Hospital on the old D.C. Jail site, but according to Jensen's letter, the federal government has not authorized the land to be used for any purpose other than a jail.
Barry's press secretary, Annette Samuels, said last night that the mayor had not received the letter and issued a prepared statement from Barry saying, "It is unfortunate that Mr. Jensen released that letter simultaneous to supposedly delivering it to us."
Samuels said that Barry was "shocked and surprised that they would act that way," and that the mayor would not comment on the contents of the letter until he had read it.
Royce Lamberth of the U.S. Attorney's Office said a copy of the letter was hand carried to Barry's office late yesterday.
Barry requested the January meeting with Jensen after the federal Bureau of Prisons ended a 4 1/2-month agreement under which it had taken all newly sentenced D.C. prisoners as a way of relieving overcrowding at the D.C. Jail, saying that the city had made no progress in its announced plans to build a prison in the District.
Since the agreement was ended, the inmate population at the jail has risen as high as 1,683 -- just 11 short of a federal court-ordered cap, but Jensen gave no indication in his letter that the federal government is prepared to resume taking prisoners.
" . . . The federal government has labored to remove this correctional crisis," Jensen said, "and we would anticipate a parallel effort by the District of Columbia to expand prison capacity on a short-term as well as long-term basis."
A source with knowledge of the site selection negotiations said that city officials suggested the McMillan tract almost immediately after the search began. The Army Corps of Engineers, however, wanted to retain the site as a backup facility until the McMillan Reservoir's new filtration system, which went into service in September, has been in operation a year.
Jensen's letter said that D.C. officials would be given immediate access to the land for planning and engineering purposes and construction should be able to begin on Oct. 1.
Although sites in all quadrants of the city were considered by the site selection team, sources had said that new sites in Southeast Washington were not considered politically feasible. Residents of Anacostia, the city's poorest area, have complained that their neighborhoods have become dumping grounds for the city's problems and have pointed to the recently opened shelter for the homeless at 1900 Anacostia Dr. SE.
A city official who asked not to be identified said that "the mayor's position is that nothing is sacred anywhere in the city." But City Council member William R. Spaulding (D), whose Ward 5 includes the McMillan site, called its inclusion "very inappropriate" and said he believed a new prison should be built either in Rock Creek Park or at the old D.C. Jail site.
"I can't possibly see the mayor building a prison there because he's not going to be mayor any longer [after] he says 'do it,' " Spaulding said.
Several persons who live near the McMillan tract echoed Spaulding's sentiments.
Anna L. Jones, who lives in the 2900 block of North Capitol Street, said the tract "is close to schools and Children's Hospital and I don't think they should build it in the type of area where kids and their families would walk."
"I understand about the people in Lorton [who have complained about the city's prison being there], but I think that place has more open space around it than this area could accommodate," said Mary Barbour, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for the neighborhood.
"Why would they want to think about this area?" Barbour asked.
A former ANC commissioner, James E. Williams Jr., who said he has lived in the 2700 block of North Capitol Street for 26 years, said, "Certainly I will try to stop it or consider a trade-off if we can't stop it. If the District is going to put up a prison like that, they should lower our property taxes, because that certainly isn't an improvement esthetically."
Williams, who said he had previously talked with officials at McMillan about what would happen to the tract when the new filtration system was operational, said he had been told that the land would be needed in case of future water shortages.
City officials would not comment on the proposed placement of temporary prison facilities at the old jail site.
Federal officials said yesterday that a search of records showed that Congress in 1866 instructed the Department of Interior to build a jail to replace the existing one at Judiciary Square and that the site, at 19th and Independence SE, has never subsequently been designated for another use or title transferred to the District government.
Included with Jensen's letter was a thick package of materials about firms that construct temporary facilities and a study of some of the facilities done for the federal National Institute of Corrections.
Of the three sites named in his letter, Jensen said the city would be limited to placing temporary structures at the old jail site because of the delay in obtaining the McMillan land and because congressional approval would be needed to place a prison facility at St. Elizabeths.
The city has also announced plans to build modular housing for 400 persons at Lorton's Central facility as an interim measure and has issued bid specifications for the project.
Congress has appropriated $30 million for the construction of a new prison in the District. Under special legislation approved late last year, the District will be allowed to "borrow" as much as $10 million for construction of the modular units at Lorton. However, that money will have to be repaid and the full $30 million appropriation spent on the new permanent facility.