The federal government intends to build an $80 million, 1,000-bed jail in the District on one of three industrial sites near downtown, Federal Bureau of Prisons officials said yesterday.
Officials said they determined that a detention facility is needed in Washington because of the large number of federal inmates being held in the city jail. The facility would ease crowding at the D.C. jail.
The Bureau of Prisons is planning to select a site by early next year, and to build the jail even if there is community opposition, said Pat Sledge, site acquisition coordinator for federal prisons. Some neighbors expressed opposition yesterday.
"In urban areas, we never win" community support, Sledge said. "We can't go away because they oppose us. Once we get in and they have a chance to observe us, they usually change their minds."
The facility, to be called the Metropolitan Detention Center, is to house up to 400 federal inmates awaiting trail, who now are held at the D.C. jail for the U.S. Marshals Service. In addition, the D.C. Department of Corrections could pay the federal government to hold about 300 District inmates. Yet another 300 beds at the facility would be designated for "pre-trial confinement of additional dangerous federal offenders," a Bureau of Prisons spokesman said.
"The institution will significantly enhance public safety by taking drug offenders and other violent criminals off the street while they are awaiting trial," said Bureau of Prisons Director J. Michael Quinlan in a prepared statement.
The facility would create 200 to 250 permanent jobs in the city, officials said. They said $8 million of the facility's annual operating budget of $12 million would go for salaries.
Two of the three prospective sites are near Florida and New York avenues NE, in a Ward 5 industrial neighborhood known as Eckington, which borders Shaw south of McKinley High School. The third is a 1.8-acre parcel, a former salvage yard with a concrete warehouse building, just off South Capitol Street in the unit block of I Street SE in Ward 2. There are no residences adjacent to any of the sites.
Bureau officials said they know of no agency with the power to derail their plans. But in the District, unlike other cities, the National Capital Planning Commission has power of approval over all federal projects.
Yesterday, some officials and activists in those areas learned about the construction plans from reporters. The reaction was negative.
D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Sr. (D-Ward 5) said through a spokeswoman: "I am totally against the construction of a federal prison in Ward 5. The citizens of Ward 5 are concerned with so many other factors, such as drugs and crime, they don't need another element introduced."
Gottlieb Simon, executive director of the Ward 2 Advisory Neighborhood Commission, laughed when he was told that one of the sites was seven blocks south of the U.S. Capitol. "I just don't believe that," he said. "We will oppose it. We have opposed office buildings for that area."
Sledge said staff members spent a year searching for land near the U.S. District Courthouse, at Third Street and Constitution Avenue NW. "We started at the courthouse and went from there," she said. "We wanted to be as close as possible to downtown. We didn't want a residential block."
Sledge said the bureau plans to pick a site after conducting environmental impact studies. Then the agency would seek to buy it. She said all the property owners have expressed willingness to sell. If rebuffed by the owners, the government could seize the property by eminent domain.
The plans have been in the works for years, and are not connected to proposals by departing drug control policy chief William J. Bennett to build a federal prison in the Washington area, officials said.
Officials said two public hearings will be held on the plan. The first is scheduled for Nov. 27.
Sledge said the building would be designed to fit the site. "We are talking first-class architecture," she said. "There will be no barbed wire." Federal detention facilities built in San Diego, Chicago and New York, she said, look like office buildings.
Sledge said every time the government builds a new prison, residents raise the same two concerns: security and property values. Sledge said studies show no drop in property values when federal prisons move in.
"The first thing they will think is Lorton," the crowded and much-criticized District prison in Fairfax County, she said. "We don't like being compared to Lorton. We have 60 years of doing the basics well."