Corrections officials in the nation's capital have watched generations of families spend much of their lives behind bars. And drug addiction is a major reason that many of them are locked in this cycle. Breaking the pattern of repeat crimes and incarceration is a tremendous task. The city is trying to meet this challenge by building a new prison just for drug and alcohol-addicted inmates. The $50 million prison will provide 700 beds and treatment and aftercare for new inmates and for addicts already in the crowded District of Columbia jail and nearby penitentiary in Lorton, Va.
The district is alone in attempting to institute a hybrid of prison and hospital emphasizing rehabilitation of substance abusers. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, jails and prisons mostly offer voluntary self-help counseling through groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. The planned facility has stirred up controversy, with one charge being that security and therapy can't mix.
Corrections officials counter that. ``This is not some pie in the sky liberal notion. It's a pragmatic approach to an insidious problem in the community. We have to try and step out with a bold new initiative,'' says Hallem Williams, deputy director of the Department of Corrections in the district. In Washington, 85 percent of the inmates have a history of substance abuse and 91 percent have been in prison before, according to a City Council report.
The ``pragmatic'' intent of the program is twofold. Mayor Marion Barry initiated the facility as an attempt to root out causes of certain criminal behavior -- and to relieve prison overcrowding. For several years the mayor has stayed one step ahead of court orders requiring him to reduce prison overcrowding. The latest count shows 6,295 people in district jails, a figure officials characterize as ``hefty'' for a city of 700,000.
The new facility will cover three areas: reception and diagnosis, substance abuse, and mental health. Admissions will be taken voluntarily as inmates come within eight to 18 months of parole. Treatment will be intense, beginning inside and continuing at a prerelease center, followed with aftercare in the community.
The corrections department has self-help and rehabilitative services but none as intense as the planned facility. Currently, people arrested who show acute withdrawal symptoms are segregated in the jail medical facility or sent to the lock ward at D.C. General Hospital.
Williams makes clear that the new facility is ``a prison, not a hospital,'' distinguished by an ``appropriate mix'' of doctors, therapists, and security personnel.
But critics say the new facility is a waste of money.
``The district should implement alternatives to incarceration instead of spending millions of dollars on new prison construction,'' says Liz Simmons of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). ``Despite all the lip service about drug treatment, this is a combination minimum-, medium-, and maximum-security prison. It comes replete with a prison fence, prison guards, and a gigantic prison price tag.''
She suggests that they could take that money and set up nonpenal settings throughout the city as a means of alternative sentencing.
Williams counters, saying the revolving door for drug offenders exacts a higher price in human lives and the system is already employing alternatives to sentencing that fail to slow the increasing prison population.
The ACLU's Simmons also accuses the corrections department of being out of its league by venturing into drug treatment. ``The Department of Corrections is in the business of running prisons. This is untried . . . territory; no where in the country has there been stringent security coupled with the trust needed in therapy,'' she says.
Dr. Henry E. Edwards, on staff at the D.C. jail's Bureau of Forensic Psychiatry, says there are advantages to placing this treatment program in a separate facility under one agency.
``It removes from the jail and prison, those whose erratic behavior is often disruptive to usual routine,'' he says. ``It permits the hiring of trained and select personnel to deal with this special population. This results in more humane care.''
Last June, an organization called the D.C. Coalition for Justice conducted a survey concerning the facility. The survey group was comprised of administrators, doctors, counselors, and nurses working in Washington drug-treatment facilities. The most prevalent concern was that the facility was too big to provide the right atmosphere for treatment.
Lawyer and former probation officer Cedric R. Hendricks says, ``Education and career oppportunities, not jails, are what is needed. I wish we were expending our energies discussing how to make [opportunitites] more available to the growing number of black males between the ages of 21 and 35.'' In Washington, 99.4 percent of the inmates are black males.
Corrections' Williams sees some truth in these arguments. It is ``ludicrous and utopian'' to think the new facility can succeed in a vacuum, he says, adding that the entire society must share responsibility for correcting the sad economic realities that make drugs alluring and jail inevitable.