With the Maryland prison system overflowing with inmates, state officials think they have found a better place to incarcerate people such as Timothy Reed -- at home.
Reed, serving a three-year sentence for passing bad checks, is a pioneer in the state's home-detention program that started last week. Instead of doing time in a prerelease prison or halfway house, Reed lives with his brother in Roland Park and works as a chef at a well-known Baltimore restaurant.
He can play with his 3-year-old son or entertain friends at his brother's apartment. He can't drink, go to the movies or do anything else without permission. Above all, he can not remove the bulky black bracelet strapped to his ankle.
Using high-tech surveillance, including constant electronic monitoring and computerized voice identification, state officials can now keep track of Reed and six others finishing their prison terms at home.
Moving cautiously to iron out mistakes, the state plans to enroll no more than 40 inmates by summer.
Stung by a series of recent problems -- including the mistaken release last year of an inmate who was later charged with killing three people -- the Division of Correction hopes to screen inmates carefully and avoid negative headlines. Exhibit A is a clipping posted in the home-detention office telling about a Chicago home-detention inmate who was charged with killing a man and robbing a pizza-delivery person in front of his house, all while linked up electronically to the Illinois Corrections Department.
"We're probably going to have some problems down the road," said Arthur G. Ford 3rd, the director of the program. "But, being pretty restrictive, hopefully we'll deflect most of the problems. There's almost no way you can predict everyone's behavior 100 percent. Again, it's who you put in the program."
Reed, 33, typifies the kind of inmate the state thinks is suited to home detention. He was sent to prison for three years in 1989 for writing bad checks totaling in the thousands of dollars for money Reed said he needed to pay off gambling debts.
Reed said he is happy to be out of prisons and halfway houses.
"I've always read in the paper that the prisons are overcrowded -- 'there's no room in the inn,' " Reed said. "I'm scared, but I think it helps me to be better acclimated to society. When you're in jail, you build up anger, hostility. All you learn is different ways to commit crime."
The Maryland General Assembly last year approved home detention as a way of reducing new prison construction. But the state legislature attached strict guidelines. Inmates with a history of violent crime, drug dealing, child abuse or escape are not eligible for home detention. Inmates must also have good prison records and be within 18 months of their release from prison.
Of about 18,000 inmates now in the system, only about 1,200 meet those standards, Ford said. Of those, about half are disqualified because their home lives are unstable or they don't have a telephone at home, a vital ingredient for the electronic monitoring.
The black and blue band strapped to each home-detention inmate transmits a radio signal to a receiver attached to the inmate's phone. If the inmate strays too far or removes the bracelet, the signal is cut off and the phone automatically dials a Division of Correction office on Guilford Avenue to report the inmate missing.
The system also calls the inmate from time to time, comparing his or her voice with a voice print stored in the system's computer. Armed correctional officers also make visits to the inmate's home or workplace to make sure he is where he is supposed to be. Using a detection device strapped to their cars' --boards, officers can make random drive-by checks of an inmate's whereabouts. Inmates must also undergo both scheduled and unannounced drug and alcohol tests.
An inmate who breaks the rules can be sent back to prison. A serious violation can be treated like an escape, adding a year to the inmate's prison term.
Inmates in the program must pay $5 a day for the electronic monitoring. The state's major expense is providing an office staff -- which now totals 14 people -- to monitor the detainees. Ford said an inmate detained at home costs the state about $31 a day, compared with $51 for an incarcerated inmate.