Oak Hill youth jail criticized

April 13, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- A lawyer representing inmates at the District of Columbia's maximum-security youth prison in Laurel yesterday condemned the prison's operation and asked a D.C. judge to increase fines the city has paid because of the prison's overcrowded conditions.

The attorney, David Reiser, asked Superior Court Judge Ricardo M. Urbina to increase the fine to $1,000 a day for each inmate that the Oak Hill Youth Detention Center is over capacity. The current fine is $1,000 for each day the prison is overcrowded.

Mr. Reiser said the conditions are "condemning the youths to Lorton," the district's adult prison in Virginia.

"They have been doing that for seven and a half years," he said. "We are asking for the easiest and most appropriate way to get the defendant to stop."

District lawyers argued that Oak Hill and the Receiving Home, an overcrowded youth prison in Northeast Washington, are above capacity because judges keep sending youths to the prisons, often with restrictive orders forbidding transfers.

"Why should the district have massive fines levied against it if the district cannot move these children?" argued Jesse P. Goode, who represents the district.

As of yesterday, 202 youths were housed at Oak Hill, which has a capacity of 150; another 57 were in the Receiving Home, which has a capacity of 38. According to court documents, the district has paid more than $2 million in fines since May 1989.

If the fines Mr. Reiser is asking for were in place yesterday, the district would have faced a $71,000 penalty. Instead, the district paid $2,000 for being above capacity at the two detention centers.

Judge Urbina said he would rule by April 21.

Oak Hill, located at Route 32 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, holds the district's most violent youthful offenders, ranging in age from 14 to 21. It has been a source of community concern for years, largely because of escapes.

Conditions there and at Cedar Knoll, a now defunct D.C.-run minimum-security prison nearby, were part of a consent decree signed in 1986. The decree ordered the district to improve

conditions, set up alternative placement centers and close Cedar Knoll. The minimum-security prison closed last summer when Congress cut off funding.

In oral arguments and in court papers filed yesterday, Mr. Riser said conditions at Oak Hill were so bad "no one involved in this case would defend" it. He said inmates assigned to dormitories have no private place to store personal items, do not have school programs and have asked to be housed in protective custody "because they fear violence from other youths at the facility."

At the Receiving Home, there is not enough clothing for female inmates, bathrooms are unsanitary, children reported sleeping on window sills and others were locked in their bedrooms because the staff was overwhelmed, Mr. Reiser said.

Mr. Goode said the consent decree forbids fines or contempt charges if judges sentence youths to the prisons. He also argued that the financially strapped city cannot afford the fines.

"The fines being requested would ultimately change the face of the district's budget. It is all the more proof that all the plaintiff wants to do is punish," he said. "We have done everything we can do under the power of the executive to bring the population down."

Mr. Reiser said the district has failed to set up alternative placements, thus limiting the choices of judges. This explains why several youths are in Oak Hill on truancy charges, he said.

"Truant kids presumably should not be in the system," said Britt Reynolds, who also represents the city. "But, and I don't mean to be flip, it is not the Department of Human Services that make those decisions."

Mr. Goode, arguing that many youths are sent to Oak Hill out of concerns for public safety, said it is unfair to second-guess placement decisions.

"The plaintiffs are putting themselves in the minds of judges," he said. "I think that is wishful thinking."

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