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GAO: Lorton closing hinges on feds

(Published May 22, 2000)

By KATHRYN SINZINGER

Staff Writer

Keeping the congressionally mandated shutdown of the Districtís prison system on schedule is largely contingent on the already overcrowded federal prison systemís ability to accept transfer of the remaining inmates at Lorton, according to a recent General Accounting Office status report on the closure process.

Federal correctional institutions, managed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, "are reportedly 33 percent over capacity systemwide, with medium and high security facilities at 54 percent and 52 percent over capacity respectively," the GAO reported last month to Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, the Fairfax Republican who chairs the D.C. oversight subcommittee in the House and in whose congressional district Lorton is located.

In addition, the GAO noted that the federal prison system experienced the largest ever increase in its inmate population during fiscal 1998 and "experienced a second year of large inmate population increases" during fiscal 1999. The Districtís Department of Corrections also has experienced an "unexpected" increase in its inmate population, the GAO noted, complicating the shutdown process even further.

"Despite the transfer of 1,861 District sentenced felon inmates from Lorton to BOP, the number of sentenced felon inmates in the Districtís custody only decreased by 13," the GAO reported.

The GAO noted Bureau of Prisons officials acknowledged in March that the originally planned new facilities "to absorb the Districtís sentenced felon inmates will not be ready by the December 31, 2001, date" which Congress mandated for Lortonís closing. But federal officials said they are taking other steps to comply with the congressional mandate.

"These steps include adding space by expanding existing BOP facilities, increasing the use of contract and state-run facilities, and redistributing low and minimum security inmates among existing BOP facilities," the GAO said.

Bureau of Prison officials did not return calls for comment. Davis press secretary David Marin called the Lorton closure "new territory," but Davis did not respond to a request for comment on the current challenges cited by the GAO report.

Only three of seven buildings that originally housed inmates at Lorton remain operational. According to the GAO, at the end of last December there were still 618 inmates being held in the maximum-security facility and 1,951 prisoners being held in the central facility. The central facility numbers include inmates being held in the separate modular facility, which was originally closed in 1995 but needed to be reopened last year to accommodate the rapid influx of new prisoners.

In addition to the pressures being put on the federal prison system by Lortonís closure, the GAO cited funding and staffing problems the D.C. Department of Corrections faces as a result of the planned shutdown.

A study in October 1997 "reported that up to 20 Department of Correctionsí employees were resigning during each two-week pay period," the GAO reported. The report said staff attrition has slowed to about nine per pay period more recently, a number which D.C. corrections Director Odie Washington said "sounds about right" for the current situation.

Washington said "primarily correctional staff is leaving," many to take guard positions with suburban jurisdictions or to join local police departments. While the closure of three Lorton facilities last year allowed staff reassignments to forestall serious guard shortages, Washington said he foresees a potential problem in maintaining full staffing levels as Lorton gets closer to shutting down. The current timetable calls for shutting down the maximum-security facility by March 2001 and central by the end of December 2001.

"We quite frankly donít know how many staff weíll have around next year to manage our facilities and that creates a management crisis for us next year," he said.

The director said he is "taking steps to mitigate staffing problems," such as negotiating to bring in Bureau of Prisons personnel on a temporary basis to help and seeking a change in the law that would allow him to hire retired Lorton guards to fill the void.

"Thereís a lot of historical significance here ó this may be the first time in the country that weíve closed an entire prison system down," Washington said, noting the challenges that remain in getting the job done on time include no budgeted funding for continuing to operate the maximum-security facility beyond its planned closure date next March.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator