Despite collapse, Pen wing still in use

January 10, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff

The antiquated South Wing of the Maryland Penitentiary, where an inmate recently crashed through a crumbling floor and fell one story, will have to remain in use because of overcrowded prison conditions statewide.

After the floor collapsed Dec. 20, the Division of Correction removed about half of the 150 prisoners housed in the wing, said division spokesman Gregory M. Shipley.

Pen inmates were shifted mainly to the medium-security House of Correction in Jessup, Shipley said. There are few prisons in the state prepared to handle the violent prisoners housed in the maximum-security Pen.

The remaining 75 inmates were moved to the ground floor.

"They would like to move everybody out, but this is the best possible scenario we can use at this point," Shipley said.

In the December incident, part of the slate floor on the wing's fourth tier collapsed. Inmate Glenn Wooden, 24, who is serving five years for assault, received minor bruises, Shipley said.

The penitentiary has had a long history of physical problems. In March 1990, officials disclosed that the entire cell block, which stands free from the stone walls, was listing, causing metal bars to buckle and jamming some cell doors closed. In November 1988, three chunks of slate in the South Wing fell from a walkway outside the cellblocks. And in 1987, a boiler blew up.

State officials have talked of tearing down the dilapidated South Wing since 1984, when an inmate fatally stabbed correctional officer Herman Toulson. Former state attorney general Stephen H. Sachs subsequently issued a report calling the prison the "innermost circle of hell."

Prison officials have planned for more than three years to close down the Pen, shift inmates elsewhere and build a minimum-security prerelease center there. The planned "metropolitan transitional services center" is intended to return inmates to Baltimore and help them readjust before release.

But, the continuing flow of new inmates has caused overcrowding at state prisons and forced the state to delay plans.

The Pen replacement plans also have been caught in a disagreement between state senators, who want to renovate it for other correctional uses, and delegates, who want to raze the building.

The December incident "highlights the need to either make a decision as to whether or not to refurbish the thing or tear it down," said Ricardo R. Silva, an official with the Maryland Classified Employees Association, which represents some of the Pen guards. "It's our position that the South Wing should be torn down," Silva said.

Legislators are expected to debate the issue of razing the Pen once again in 1991.

All the state prisons are squeezed for space. The population housed by the Division of Correction has grown from 16,008 in January 1990 to 17,251 this week, Shipley said.

"When you have a situation like the South Wing, it provides another added burden on the overcrowded situation," he said.

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