Dorchester Co. Jail awaits public verdict

December 16, 1990|By James Bock | James Bock,Sun Staff Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE -- Lemuel D. Chester looks at the old Dorchester County Jail and sees a symbol of blacks' oppression that needs to be destroyed.

David J. DeLaria looks at the 107-year-old structure and sees a fine example of Romanesque Revival architecture that deserves to be preserved.

Today, both Mr. Chester, Dorchester's first black county commissioner, and Mr. DeLaria, secretary of Historic Cambridge Inc., will tour the granite-block building as the commissioners, pondering the old jail's fate, hold an open house.

"The jail just has some memories I'd just as soon not think about," said Mr. Chester, who was jailed there during the racial strife of the 1960s that resulted in National Guard occupation of Cambridge.

"And it would cost close to $1 million to renovate it," he said. "We can't afford it."

Mr. DeLaria disagreed: "For him and for a lot of people, it's a deeply emotional issue. They see the jail as a symbol of what they endured. All I see there is a Romanesque building that could be a very nice-looking law library. The issue comes down to aesthetics: Do we want to save this building?"

The old jail in the heart of Cambridge has drawn attention in recent years not as a historic landmark, but as a 19th-century hellhole of stifling heat and leaky toilets. As recently as 1988, up to three prisoners were crammed in each of its 6-by-7-foot cells.

Then, in response to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit, a federal judge -- citing jail conditions "to shock the conscience and shatter any standard of human decency" -- ordered Dorchester County to move prisoners out.

Inmates were transferred to temporary trailers at another site. A new $10 million jail being built on the outskirts of the city of 11,379 is now 60 percent complete. Yet the old jail, which still houses the county Sheriff's Department, is historic. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The fortresslike exterior includes a circular tower, ornamental brickwork and two cupolas on the slate roof.

Inside, the main cellblock looks like something from central casting -- a gloomy dungeon with four tiers of cold steel. Green paint peels from the walls. Prisoners' artwork still adorns cells -- a shapely woman in one cell, Jesus Christ in another.

The old jail shares an oblong city block with the stately county courthouse, an 1854 Italianate building, and Spring Valley, a park where candidate John F. Kennedy spoke from the bandstand in 1960 and children now sled on what passes for a hill on the flat Eastern Shore.

It is the urgent need to expand the courthouse that has made the jail's fate pressing business. If it isn't to encroach on Spring Valley, the courthouse annex must either displace or include the jail.

The courthouse is undoubtedly crowded. Metal cabinets containing case files nestle up to Coke and candy machines in the main hallway. Records are stacked from floor to ceiling in a storage room. Books lie on the floor of the law library and spill into the judge's outer chambers.

A second courtroom has been improvised in a 20-by-20-foot room. Prosecutors and defense attorneys must sit elbow to elbow at the same table. When a jury trial is held, only five seats are left unoccupied for defendants, witnesses and spectators.

"All I want is room," said Philip L. Cannon, who has been court clerk since 1958. "You can hardly keep the witnesses away from the jurors. It's just a bad, bad situation."

Judge Donald F. Johnson of Dorchester County Circuit Court agreed that the need for space is critical -- and that the jail controversy is blocking expansion for now.

The judge said public sentiment would have to determine the old jail's fate but that, "If we were to put it to a vote, I would vote it be torn down."

Last month, the outgoing county commissioners did put the jail's fate to a vote. They voted, 4-0, with one abstention, to seek a demolition permit from the city of Cambridge. Mr. Chester voted with the majority.

Generally, a Maryland building's inclusion on national and state historic registers does not automatically immunize it from demolition, experts say. However, when a government agency is involved, demolition plans sometimes need review by the Maryland Historic Trust. Issuance of the demolition permit has been delayed while the city's attorney studies the legal consequences of approving it.

Meanwhile, three county commissioners elected Nov. 6 took office this month. They decided to take a fresh look at the old jail.

Shirley McWilliams, the newly elected president of the commissioners, said they scheduled today's open house to probe the depth of public feeling about the structure.

"I hate to see any old building demolished," said Mrs. McWilliams, a high school history teacher. "If there is a massive outcry for keeping the jail from citizens all over the county, you would have to re-evaluate. If any organizations can come up with ideas or help us financially, I'm willing to listen."

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