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Contaminated soil may derail Ward 8 prison

With $1 million contract, Corrections Corp. of America

adds UDC to list of supporters

(Published May 31, 1999)

By REBECCA CHARRY

Staff Writer

Corrections Corp. of America wants to build a prison in Ward 8 on land it does not own to house inmates for which it doesn’t have a contract. But marathon hearings before the D.C. Zoning Commission have gone forward in recent weeks with the company’s assurance that all those details will fall into place.

A controversial plan to build a 1,280-bed private prison for low-security male inmates at Oxon Cove in far Southwest Washington turns on several legal and technical developments, including a congressionally mandated "land swap" to give CCA control of the site. Legislation added to the fiscal 1998 Interior appropriations bill directs the National Park Service to give CCA 46 acres of D.C. land in exchange for 84 undeveloped acres — mostly underwater — the company owns in adjacent Prince George’s County, Md. The swap, which is not yet complete, has been held up by initial findings that the Prince George’s parcel appears to be contaminated with hazardous materials, park service officials said.

"There appears to be a base level of contamination," said David Murphy, of the National Park Service. The land swap legislation prohibits the park service from accepting the land if it is contaminated.

An additional round of soil tests is now being analyzed, Murphy said. An analysis of those findings is expected by the end of June.

The park service has no official opinion on the CCA project and is simply carrying out the directive mandated by Congress, Murphy said.

But privately, other park service officials say they are not happy.

"The park service committee is very upset about it," said an official who requested anonymity. "Having Congress make a land use decision without any public process, without any input from anybody, is a horrible precedent.

"We tried to get this bill vetoed," the official said of the 1998 appropriation. "In the end, it wasn’t worth going to war over it."

The land swap directive was inserted into the Interior bill during a "harried" late-night session of the House-Senate conference committee shortly before the scheduled vote, according to committee staff. Officials in Prince George’s County, including County Executive Wayne Curry who opposes the project, said they were not informed about the swap until after it became law.

Even assuming the land swap is finalized, CCA would have an additional hurdle to jump — landing a contract with the federal Bureau of Prisons to operate a correctional facility there. The contract award is expected to be announced this summer. If the contract goes to one of CCA’s competitors, the Nashville-based company would still own the land, provided the land swap is completed. CCA could sell it, re-apply for a zoning change or bid on future contracts.

In the meantime both sides concluded their cases May 27 before the only D.C. body that has an official say in the process — the zoning commission, usually a bit player in city government. But suddenly the spotlight is on the five members appointed by the mayor, charged with approving or disapproving CCA’s request to have the land — currently unzoned — zoned for a prison.

In recent hearings, CCA officials touted the benefits of a correctional facility, including new jobs and lucrative contracts for the city’s poorest ward. CCA most recently added to the benefits package a partnership with the beleaguered University of the District of Columbia which would become a major subcontractor offering vocational and educational training to inmates in exchange for up to $1.2 million. The partnership, pulled together over two weeks in late May with the endorsement of university President Julius Nimmons, would also give the university an unspecified amount of money to establish a satellite campus east of the Anacostia River and provide 50 full-time scholarships for local residents.

"CCA is in a financial position to do some things for the university that the city has historically been unable to do," said Cynthia Belton, Nimmons’ assistant. She said the partnership with CCA does not require approval of the university’s board of trustees.

Advocates for inmates say the best benefit of a CCA prison would be keeping inmates close to their families. Studies show inmates who maintain close contact with family during incarceration are less likely to commit additional crimes and more likely to find meaningful work after they are released.

The local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, the D.C. Office of Planning and Mayor Anthony A. Williams have urged the zoning commission to reject CCA’s application because it would damage efforts to improve the image of the ward and discourage other types of economic development east of the Anacostia River. Residents say the ward has become a "dumping ground" for undesirable projects. The three neighborhood economic development corporations east of the river are also opposed.

CCA, the largest private prison company in the nation, currently houses about 1,000 D.C. inmates near Youngstown, Ohio, in a facility that was troubled last year by highly publicized escapes, homicides and stabbings.

A zoning commission decision is expected June 14.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator