Baltimore County is considering a proposal from the federal government to renovate part of its 1857 stone jail to hold up to 20 federal prisoners.
If the administration of County Executive Roger B. Hayden decides to go ahead with the project, the county would gain 16 beds for its work-release prisoners as well as $45 per day payments for any federal prisoners housed there. But county officials feel the project would cost more than the federal government has estimated.
Not since the 1950s have prisoners been held in the cellblock of the 134-year-old jail, the county's first after it broke from *T Baltimore City in 1851.
U.S. Marshall Scott Sewell, who made the proposal, said he has verbal approval to spend up to $500,000 in federal money on the construction.
The cells are made by Security Cells International, a New Orleans, La., firm, which just installed several modules on the grounds of the Queen Anne's County Detention Center, on the Eastern Shore.
Salvatore Sabatino, president of Cells America, a Towson company that distributes the modules, estimated that the demolition work would take two to three months, about the time it would take to manufacture and ship the cell units.
County Sheriff Norman Pepersack said he expects it could take another two to four weeks before a recommendation is made to the county executive for his decision.
County Public Works Director Gene Neff said his engineers have examined the 19th century stone building and conclude that the project would cost more than $500,000, mainly because the old wooden floors in the building are part of the supports for the massive side walls. If the floors are removed as part of the demolition of the existing cells, the walls would need expensive bracing, he said.
Sewell said he now keeps federal prisoners in the Baltimore City Jail, in 90 beds reserved and funded by the U.S. Marshal's Office. Suspects in federal crimes are also held in three county lockups on the Eastern Shore and in Montgomery and Prince George's county jails.
Sewell said jail crowding in the Baltimore metropolitan area has made it harder to find beds for federal prisoners. Federal prisoners were kept in Towson before 1980 until jail crowding became a problem in Baltimore County.
The deal Sewell is offering Baltimore County is for 20 beds for 20 years. Because county officials are also hard pressed for bed space and would get 16 jail beds free out of the deal, they are interested in the proposal.
The building under consideration was begun in 1854 and finished in 1857 along with the old courthouse several blocks north. They were the first public buildings constructed after the county politically separated from the city in 1851.
Built for $12,000, the jail building was divided into two sections -- living space for the warden and his family in the front, the cells in the rear. No prisoners have been held there since 1956, when a new jail was finished next door. The warden's portion was renovated in 1989 for $117,000 to house 40 work-release prisoners.