Potential bidders visit state-run Hickey School

May 20, 1991|By John W. Frece

Sure, the place looked a bit run down, but most of its prospective managers thought it had possibilities.

The kitchen was large; there appeared to be enough bedrooms for everyone; the fences were sturdy; and there was plenty of land, with a large lawn, rolling hills and beautiful trees.

The owners said they were willing to install an expensive new heating system, and said the county was about to hook the place up to new water lines.

With a little paint and a lot of innovative ideas, the place might even be able to do what it was built to do.

But this was not a house that executives from about two dozen private firms from across the country toured last week. Quite the contrary. This was the 215-acre Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Cub Hill-- Maryland's only home for juvenile delinquents.

And this was a time of change.

The state of Maryland is trying to get a private company to take over operations at Hickey, to do everything from maintaining buildings that, in some cases, are nearly as old as this century, to counseling the 360 troubled teen-agers incarcerated there about drug or alcohol abuse, AIDS or pregnancy prevention, or to teach them some skill or trade they can use as an alternative to crime when they get back on the outside.

The hope is that a private company might be able to do what the state has not: develop a program that does more for kids than lock them up and that costs less than the $17 million a year Maryland currently spends on Hickey. Sixty-eight percent of the Hickey residents had as many as five prior recorded brushes with the law.

Based on the large turnout at a two-day "pre-bid conference" held at the school last week, and based on interviews with several of the potential bidders, it appears a number of companies are likely to go after the five-year contract, which could be worth as much as $80 million to the winning bidder.

"We were pleased with the number of potential vendors. Among them, we know at least five or six have very substantial experience in the [juvenile corrections] area," said Juvenile Services Secretary Nancy S. Grasmick. "There is a genuine feeling we are going to have some healthy competition here, which is what we desire."

The would-be operators of Hickey gathered on the wooden pews of the yellow-walled chapel attached to Hickey's main administration building, one of a dozen or more old stucco buildings that date back to around World War I. Deputy Secretary Alfred I. Murphy, using maps of what he called "the campus," described the age and current use of each building, its staffing, utility costs, maintenance problems from inefficient boilers to the presence of asbestos, and status of state capital improvement plans.

He talked about Hickey's "kids."

The youngsters at Hickey range in age from 12 to 20, but most are between 13 and 18, he said. A third of them are awaiting trial. The other two-thirds are "committed" there for crimes that range from assault with intent to murder, to unlawful use of a handgun in a crime, to breaking and entering, vandalism, shoplifting, drug dealing, traffic offenses, trespassing and running away from home. They end up staying at Hickey an average of seven months.

Many suffer from alcohol or drug problems. Some are so violent they are confined to one of three small dormitories that, along with a classroom building and a gymnasium, are encircled by a double row of 16-foot-high chain-link fencing topped with rolls of razor ribbon. At night, those youngsters sleep on bunks in closet-like cells about five cinder blocks wide and eight cinder blocks deep.

On the first day of the conference, several potential bidders said they were concerned the state was moving too fast, that problems at Hickey, or hidden costs, were being glossed over. A two-day limit on tours of the facility only heightened a concern that bidders would have to bid blindly to meet the state's June 17 deadline, several said.

But by week's end, most bidders were praising Mr. Murphy and other Juvenile Services officials for their willingness to answer questions or make documents or records available. Tours of the facility were extended through the end of May, and a proposed permissible profit margin of 3 percent of the overall operating costs was raised to 5 percent in an effort to attract more bids.

"The first day I was leery, but now I am not," said Ron Russell, group vice president of the Management & Training Corp. of Ogden, Utah. The company has contracts with the federal government to house and train some 10,000 youth at 20 Job Corps centers around the country. The firm also runs a 200-bed minimum-security prison in Desert Center, Calif.

What many of the bidders said they liked most about the Maryland proposal was that it was so open-ended.

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