Any way you look at it, Officer Ronald Pope didn’t pull a cushy assignment when he was transferred to the Lorton Youth Center back in May. Originally built in 1960 to hold 358 inmates, the building housed more than 800 when Pope arrived. And rather than just young offenders, the center was home to prisoners of all ages—and all types of criminal backgrounds.
The Youth Center’s 213 corrections officers were already stretched to cover three shifts, says Pope, a trustee for the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). When guards occasionally left their posts to help out colleagues, he says, one officer might be left to watch a room full of bunks. “I was a little stunned to see 200 inmates in one dorm with one officer,” says Pope.
And that was all before the end of July—when D.C.’s Department of Corrections decided to ship even more prisoners to Pope’s beat. The department had just shuttered Lorton’s minimum-security facility as part of its ongoing compliance with the 1997 law requiring the District to completely close Lorton by the end of 2001. Of course, the District still hadn’t found new permanent places for that facility’s inmates. So 136 of them ended up at the Youth Center.
The batch proved to be a bit of a problem for the Youth Center—where a healthy dose of real estate sorcery had already been used to cram 800 inmates into a space built for 358. Lorton officials conjured the extra room in 1988, when they doubled the number of bunks and converted a vocational building to additional housing, says Corrections Department spokesperson Bill Meeks. But that extra space had already been filled by the time the 136 new inmates appeared. After moving 16 of them to dorm No. 7, officials were stuck.
No problem. They found some extra cots and set up the remaining 120 inmates in the facility’s gymnasium—a brick building the size of a basketball court, with no windows and no air conditioning.
Lorton officials say the situation is only temporary. They note that they’ve extended outdoor recreation hours and brought in fans and ice machines to cool off the sweltering room. Besides, says Darryl J. Madden, another department spokesperson, the gymnasium really isn’t that much different from the inmates’ previous digs, where they were housed in large rooms that held dormitory-style bunks. “It’s comparable housing,” he says. “Just more of them in a larger room.”
But corrections officers and prisoner advocates say the prison may need more than a couple of ice machines to avoid a long, hot summer. The last time Lorton officials pulled a maneuver like this at a similar facility, back in 1984, inmates tried to take the place over.
The current situation, if anything, seems even more prone to upheaval: The Youth Center has twice as many prisoners as the site of the 1984 disturbance. Facilities like showers and bathrooms can’t accommodate the influx, say Pope and others. Some longtime residents resent the newcomers, whose presence has limited access to recreational facilities and cut back on the minimal breathing room in the already crowded center.
“It just causes a lot of idleness and disruption,” says Officer James Jones, another trustee with the FOP, whose members include about 2,000 Corrections Department employees. “It’s like a powder keg waiting to explode.”
It might be easy to dismiss the warnings as just so much Chicken Littling if the sky hadn’t, in fact, come crashing down on corrections officials before. Officials of the long-troubled, long-overcrowded Lorton complex have a history of finding room for inmates wherever they can—usually in temporary spaces like classrooms or gymnasiums that were never intended for inmates.
“They’ve done this before, and they’ve historically done it very badly. People have gotten hurt or killed,” says Jonathan Smith, former executive director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project, who now heads the Public Justice Center in Baltimore. For instance, when officials tried to house additional prisoners in Lorton’s Occoquan Facility in 1986, prisoners torched a couple of buildings that had been converted into new housing. Forty-one inmates and officers were injured in the fracas.
Smith was one of a handful of attorneys who filed a 1989 lawsuit on behalf of inmates, arguing that the temporary housing of prisoners in classrooms and a gymnasium at Lorton’s Modular Facility—which housed mostly medium-security inmates—was unsafe and inhumane. In 1990, corrections officials agreed to cut the population there by a third, says Smith.
Similar legal scuffles have focused on Lorton’s Occoquan and Central facilities, says Smith. “D.C. keeps doing this, and they keep getting nailed,” he says. “Any time you take a large group of prisoners and house them in areas not designed for housing, you’re going to have problems.”
But the most salient precedent happened in December 1984. That’s when a methane explosion at the Youth Center required corrections officials to evacuate the building and temporarily move inmates to other facilities in the complex. About 190 prisoners were transferred to a since-demolished structure known as Youth Center No. 2.—140 of them into its gymnasium.
On a Friday night less than a week after the new inmates moved in, a group of 100 inmates stormed the gymnasium. According to the Washington Post, they were out to recruit their new facility-mates to join in a protest of crowding at the prison. But the inmates in the gymnasium were startled by their new neighbors’ approach and locked the gym doors. The confusion eventually spilled outside, where old-timers and new arrivals scuffled, prompting prison officials to control the situation with flare guns and tear gas.
Details of the event have grown fuzzy in the minds of corrections officials over the years. Meeks says officials recall that inmates simply got a little “rowdy on the bus,” adding, “We have no knowledge of any major disturbance.”
Whatever happened back then, Meeks says corrections officials are making every effort to maintain the situation at the Youth Center—and, as far as they can tell, things are running smoothly.
Corrections officers and prisoner advocates aren’t so sanguine. Although the 1984 near-riot took place at a different facility, they fear the situation at the Youth Center may be even more explosive. The facilities were roughly the same size, built to hold no more than 400 inmates. Youth Center No. 2 had 450 young inmates when the scuffles took place in 1984. The current Youth Center has 991 inmates of all ages and criminal backgrounds, says Meeks.
Eric Lotke, current executive director at the D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project, says he’s already gotten complaints from inmates housed in the Youth Center’s gymnasium. One group mailed him a letter saying that there are only three toilets, six urinals, and four sinks for the 120 prisoners housed in the gym. Pope notes that the gymnasium’s drainage system cannot handle the high volume of showers, leaving water backed up for hours. “They’re hot, and they’re idle, and they’re ticked off. That’s a bad recipe,” says Lotke.
Pope also says some of the higher-security criminals have already started to taunt the inmates housed in the gym, demanding that they bring them cigarettes and drinks of water. Pope has asked his bosses for help. But so far, Pope says, he’s yet to see even one of the 10 additional officers corrections officials promised.
Meeks stresses that the Corrections Department is only complying with the federal mandate to close Lorton and is trying to find other space for the inmates as quickly as possible. About a dozen were transferred to Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities this week, he says, and others should be moved out soon. “This is really for a short-term period,” he says.
At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil, who oversees the Corrections Department, says officials are working to find other space. “That’s the $64,000 question that needs to be answered,” he says. “Obviously, this needs to be temporary, and it will be.”
But corrections officers and prisoner advocates say the circumstances are already dangerous. “Putting 100 prisoners in a gym would cause me tremendous concern for the security of the facility,” says Smith. “It’s a hard thing to do in the best of circumstances. Considering Lorton’s reputation, I’d say it would be hard for them to do it right.” CP