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Prison search continues

‘Close to home’ is hard to find

(Published June 28, 1999)


Staff Writer

Now that a proposed site in Ward 8 has been all but eliminated from consideration for a prison, chances seem slim that the prison could end up anywhere in the District, Virginia or Maryland.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton already has said the prison will be "absolutely not in the District." She also ruled out Maryland, saying the state would not accept a D.C. prison in its borders.

"What happens next is, in part, out of our hands," she said, referring to the process by which the Federal Bureau of Prisons will award the prison contract. "D.C. is in the position of wanting to have a say in something it isn’t paying for and (which) is in someone else’s state."

Still, she said she plans to meet soon with Department of Justice officials to request that proposed sites closer to the District be given priority.

While the Ward 8 proposal by Corrections Corp. of America was widely publicized, little is known about the other competing bids, which the Bureau of Prisons has kept sealed.

But three other private prison companies told The Common Denominator they too have bid on the contract.

Houston-based Cornell Corrections -- which won a contract in April to house 1,050 female, youth and adult D.C. inmates at a facility in Phillipsburg, Pa. -- also has submitted a bid to house the District’s other prisoners. Company officials said the bid is for a site adjacent to the Phillipsburg facility, about 260 miles from the District.

Correctional Services Corp., a smaller company founded in 1993 in Sarasota, Fla., has proposed a site in Hopemont, W.Va., about 190 miles from the District.

Florida-based Wackenhut Corrections, the nation’s second-largest private prison company, has also submitted a bid, said spokesman Pat Cannan. He would not disclose the location of the proposed facility.

CCA’s application to zone the Ward 8 parcel was unanimously rejected by the D.C. Zoning Commission June 14. CCA board member Joseph Johnson said the company may appeal the decision but is waiting for the commission’s written report before deciding. The report, detailing the legal grounds for the rejection, may not be released until September, according to commission staff.

Johnson said the Federal Bureau of Prisons would be unlikely to award a contract to a company that did not have the proper zoning for its site. CCA, the largest and oldest private prison company in the country, operates a facility for D.C. inmates in Youngstown, Ohio, and the Correctional Treatment Facility on Capitol Hill.

The contract award announcement is expected sometime this summer.

Meanwhile, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has begun to assemble a list of potential sites in and around the District and plans to meet with Bureau of Prisons officials in early July, according to Eric Christian, the mayor’s advisor on public safety and justice.

The mayor said he supports keeping inmates within "a reasonable driving distance" so families can visit. Studies suggest inmates who maintain family ties while in prison behave better and are less likely to commit additional crimes after their release.

Meanwhile, Norton said she is focusing on limiting the role of private prisons in the future. The District of Columbia Prison Safety Act, which she is co-sponsoring with Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va., would allow the District to house fewer of its inmates in private prisons than is currently required by law. The 1997 Revitalization Act required the District to house 50 percent of its inmates in private facilities.

Norton said she does not want to see inmates who require high security held in private facilities, which, she said, have little experience or success with the most difficult and violent inmates.

"If some of these tough maximum-security inmates find their way into private facilities, that would be a disaster," she said. "We know the private companies can’t handle it."

Instead, she said, the Bureau of Prisons should run any facility for D.C. inmates.

But unlike the more than 1,000 D.C. inmates already scattered across the country in federal facilities from Montana to Maine, D.C. inmates being shipped out of Lorton should remain in the area, Norton said.

"It is inhumane to have them scattered all over the United States," she said. "They end up unprepared for release because they have so little contact with their families. Spreading them around is not an option."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator