We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

When the District moved the last frail residents out of D.C. Village last June, advocates for the elderly marveled at how fast the District had shut the place down after it conceded that it just couldn’t fix the city-run nursing home. The Department of Human Services had fought lawsuits and court orders for more than six years before finally closing Cedar Knoll, the city’s troubled juvenile detention center. Dozens of people had to die before the District finally closed Forest Haven, the city’s old home for the mentally retarded. And St. Elizabeths mental hospital, which suffers from many of the same problems as D.C. Village, is still open—23 years after the first lawsuit to move its patients elsewhere.

Yet just 13 months after the Justice Department filed suit on behalf of the nursing home’s vulnerable residents, D.C. Village stood empty and desolate next to the city’s impound lot and sewage treatment plant in Southeast. The D.C. government’s quick exodus from D.C. Village may well reflect a newfound concern for the care of its most vulnerable residents, but the more likely motive is money: In 1995, D.C. Village suddenly became valuable.

With newly powerful Virginia Rep. Tom Davis (R) clamoring for the District to close its largest correctional institution in Lorton, Va., the District had a sudden need—but not the funds—for a new prison. Sensing a juicy business opportunity, the nation’s private prison companies stepped in, offering to solve the city’s prison crisis without raiding the city treasury. And now they’re eyeballing the 254-acre D.C. Village compound as a prime site to erect fresh reinforced walls and razor wire.

While he won’t admit it publicly, prison industry sources say Mayor Marion Barry has stated privately that the city is in favor of constructing a new prison on the grounds of D.C. Village. And there’s every indication that the city intends to award the contract to the Correctional Corp. of America (CCA), a company whose ongoing deals with the city have recently caught the eye of the D.C. inspector general. According to sources in the prison industry, the IG is apparently interested in whether the District unfairly favored CCA over other vendors when it awarded CCA the multimillion-dollar contract to take over management of the city’s newest jail, the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF). The IG is reportedly asking similar questions about CCA’s latest contract to place D.C. prisoners in its new Youngstown, Ohio, prison.

City Administrator Michael Rogers says that both CCA and its largest competitor, Wackenhut, have expressed interest in building a prison on the D.C. Village land. However, Rogers insists that there has been “no determination” about the disposition of the D.C. Village plot.

“There’s interest on the Hill, particularly from suburban representatives, to downsize Lorton,” says Rogers. That gives the District two options: sending prisoners to other jurisdictions or, in Rogers’ words, “building a new prison where the District owns land, and D.C. Village is one place where the District owns land.”

Right now the city is using some of the D.C. Village property for Job Corps offices and training for the fire and police departments. When the Barry administration is ready to consider new uses for the land, says Rogers, it will open the project to a competitive bidding process, most likely at the end of the year. “There clearly is an interest in developing that site,” he says, adding that a lot of people have ideas about what should be done there. “New prisons could be one of the options. But there are no deals. There are ideas and concepts.”

Rogers’ dance around the issue of a new prison isn’t all that surprising considering that prisons are usually politically unpopular projects that come under the “not in my back yard” category of economic development. Former Ward 8 Councilmember Eydie Whittington says the ward is already overloaded with facilities like St. Elizabeths mental hospital, the sewage treatment plant, and other blights. She says her former constituents are adamantly opposed to adding a new prison to the list. “They don’t want it!” insists Whittington.

But Rogers’ equivocating may stem more from the behind-the-scenes negotiating with prison corporations than from concern about the reaction of the residents of Ward 8, especially because there’s some evidence that some of those residents might actually support a new prison in their ward. According to council staffers, Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen has privately told her colleagues that she would support a new prison in her ward. Plus, quite a few Ward 8 residents have family members imprisoned at Lorton and other faraway places, and a prison closer to home would allow them to visit their loved ones more often. And in an area looking at a 20-percent unemployment rate, even prison jobs can start to look like pretty good jobs.

Ward 8 activist Sandra Seegars favors a new prison in Ward 8 and sees D.C. Village as a prime location for it, since the site is set away from residential neighborhoods, unlike the D.C. Jail. “That’s not a bad spot for it. It’s right by the stinking part,” she says, alluding to the nearby sewage treatment plant. “The only problem is who does it and how much it costs.” Seegars points out that Barry has a penchant for giving away city land to his developer friends for next to nothing, thereby depriving the District of millions in potential revenue.

If Rogers and other District officials are serious about promoting competition for developing the D.C. Village site, they’re being awfully quiet in how they’re going about it. On March 25, without any discussion with, say, the people who actually live in Ward 8, the mayor’s office quietly sent the D.C. Council a one-page resolution seeking permission to lease out the land at D.C. Village—for up to 99 years—to help generate jobs and tax revenues in the District.

In a cover letter that accompanied the resolution, Barry wrote, “[I]t is the intention of the District to issue a competitive solicitation to lease this property…to one or more private developers who will develop the property as an industrial park consisting of core industries and storage/warehouse facilities.” The resolution didn’t specify how much money the city was looking to make, who the potential developers might be, or just what kind of industry the city was seeking to promote.

When the resolution landed in the council chambers, it came as big news to Allen, who says she was never consulted. When she sought more information from the mayor’s office, she says she was stonewalled. Allen says she had three questions for the mayor about the proposed lease: “Why 99 years? For how much? And what does the community get back from it? Is it a dollar for 99 years?” asks Allen. “History has shown that leases of that length have not been productive for the city.” She says she was uncomfortable with the vagueness of the language in the mayor’s resolution. “What is industrial development?” she asks. “There’s much that could be described as industrial development.”

As a result, Allen asked Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson to reject the resolution when it came before her Government Operations Committee. Allen says her opposition stems more from procedural gripes than any objection to developing the site. “I want that land developed,” says Allen. “But it has to be something that we have some say-so in.”

Patterson deferred to Allen and indicated that she would disapprove the resolution at last Tuesday’s committee meeting—a move that forced Barry officials into a panic. According to staffers on Patterson’s committee, Will Mebane, a Department of Housing and Community Development official who has assisted Rogers on the project, made a “hysterical” call to Patterson’s office and attempted to persuade the councilmember to reverse her stance on the resolution. Mebane claimed to have spent a long time working on the one-page resolution and sent Patterson a draft request for proposals (RFP) that his office intended to use to solicit bids for developing the D.C. Village site, according to council staff.

But Patterson was unswayed by the vague RFP, which staffers say provided no more insight into the mayor’s intentions than did his resolution. Patterson’s staffers say they were suspicious that the mayor’s office was trying to get the council to approve a blanket authority to lease the land and thus avoid having to get council approval for the lease itself. Last Tuesday morning, before Patterson’s committee was scheduled to meet and take action on the resolution, the mayor’s office withdrew it, thereby heading off any public discussion.

Mebane says he had “no idea” the council would not support the resolution and insists that the administration’s plan is “to develop D.C. Village for economic development,” which he defines as “anything that will create jobs and bring business to the city.” According to Mebane, the administration wants to use the site for light manufacturing and high-tech industries and for developing the nearby waterfront at Oxon Cove—land currently owned by the U.S. Park Service—as some kind of recreational site.

(Although Mebane is known among prison company execs as one of the movers behind the D.C. Village lease, he declined to give his job title and threatened that the city would take legal action against Washington City Paper if it printed any of his on-the-record comments. He also stated that he would deny ever having commented on D.C. Village.)

However, the 40-acre swath of park-service land around Oxon Cove that Mebane insists is slated for a waterfront recreational area bumps right up against the sludge ponds at the odoriferous Blue Plains sewage treatment plant. More importantly, last year Congress authorized the park service to begin taking steps to swap that same plot of land for another piece of land in Maryland owned by none other than CCA.

The proposed land swap hasn’t exactly been a secret. When it submitted its financial proposal for privatizing the city’s new jail, CCA stated that it had already secured land on which it planned to build a prison for the District’s female convicts. If CCA builds a prison on the land directly abutting D.C. Village, it’s highly unlikely that any “high-tech” companies are going to want to build an industrial park at D.C. Village, and the only other warehouse likely to go up at D.C. Village will be the human kind.

Rogers is well acquainted with the terms of the land swap, but insists, “CCA’s land swap with the park service had nothing to do with the District of Columbia.” Mebane, too, says he believes CCA is acting on its own behalf, not the city’s, since a new prison isn’t exactly something that will encourage private business development at D.C. Village. “I don’t think the mayor would do anything that would jeopardize the economic viability of that site,” he says.

Yet in its discussions with the park service, CCA—represented by attorney and former D.C. Councilmember John Ray—has told the park service that the prison company is acting on behalf of the District of Columbia, with the city’s full blessing. “[The city’s] interest is being described to us by CCA and its lawyers,” says Sally Blumenthal, a deputy associate superintendent of the National Capital Region of the National Park Service. She has been led to believe that the District supports both the land swap and the plan for the women’s prison construction. She admits, however, that the park service has not heard from the District itself.

Blumenthal’s comments mean one of two things: Either CCA and Ray are misrepresenting the city’s position (Ray did not return calls for comment), or the District government has every intention of building a new prison in Ward 8 with help from CCA.

In an April interview, D.C. Department of Corrections Director Margaret Moore said she would like to see the District build a women’s prison within city limits because most of its women prisoners are housed at out-of-state federal institutions. CCA’s land swap—which isn’t final yet—also has the tacit support of Davis, who would like nothing better than to get the District’s prison in Lorton closed before he makes a bid for the U.S. Senate. Ron Hamm, staff director for the House’s subcommittee on the District, says he is aware of the land swap, but says that Davis isn’t driving the prison proposals. Hamm says that in Barry’s 1996 “transformation plan” he endorsed privatizing 70 percent of the corrections department. Hamm says Congress (and Davis) is merely supporting that plan.

CCA is certainly behaving like a shoe-in for the city’s potential prison business. The company has sunk a small fortune into buying 84 acres of land on the west side of I-295 in Prince George’s County—most of which is underwater and which has no access from the highway, according to Blumenthal. She says developers have tried to build there for years, but much of the plot is wetlands and is useless to developers. It’s hard to imagine that CCA would sink its stockholders’ fortune into underwater real estate unless it was damn sure it was going to find a profitable use for it—like swapping it for land it can build a prison on.

CCA seems to have found a sure thing with its deals in the District. Competitors like Wackenhut claim that the city has given CCA other huge contracts—and apparently insider information for those contracts—without competition from other firms. Last fall, after protests from its competitor Wackenhut that the city had shut Wackenhut out of the bidding process, CCA and the District entered into a complicated arrangement in which CCA took over the management of the District’s Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF) in Southeast. Under the deal, CCA bought the facility for $52 million and is leasing it back to the city for nearly $3 million a year. The city is also paying CCA more than $20 million annually to manage the institution. At the end of 20 years, the city is scheduled to regain ownership of the facility, essentially making the $52 million an interest-free loan.

The control board, Congress, and the mayor’s office all smiled on the deal, claiming that it would save the District millions of dollars a year while helping to reduce the city’s budget deficit. But prisoners’ rights advocates questioned the deal, asking why a huge, publicly traded corporation like CCA would volunteer to give the city $52 million, interest-free, unless it knew it would recoup the interest somewhere else—like in other contracts. At hearings on the proposed privatization, CCA President Doctor Crants told the D.C. Council that the CTF deal was a stand-alone and that the company had no other business in the works with the District. But his company’s own financial proposal contradicted his testimony and laid out a blueprint for more D.C. deals (including the plan for a women’s prison), almost all of which have since come to fruition.

Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who oversees the corrections department, says he doesn’t know much about the D.C. Village lease but says plans for a new prison are “very premature.” He says nothing will be decided until the city figures out what to do with Lorton. The president’s plan for the District calls for keeping it open, says Evans, who adds that even if the federal Bureau of Prisons takes responsibility for the District’s inmates, the city will still be responsible for people convicted of misdemeanors, and will need a new prison. He says CCA is speculating that there will be a need for a prison in the District, and that it is working independently to get in line to do the job. “I don’t think it’s a conspiratorial action,” Evans adds. “CCA in the past has speculated on prisons and done so successfully.”CP