Proposal to house federal prisoners in old Towson jail draws fire

May 27, 1991|By Deborah I. Greene | Deborah I. Greene,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

A proposal to house federal prisoners at the old Towson jail, near the Baltimore County Detention Center, has stirred opposition from neighbors who complain that the inmate population is already encroaching on them.

Sue Schenning, president of the Southland Hills Improvement Association, said homeowners object to the U.S. marshal's proposal to give the county money to improve its jails in exchange for 20 cells for minimum- and medium-security prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing in federal court in Baltimore.

Rumors about the federal proposal began circulating months ago when officials announced that in May a trailer would be put at the site of the old jail, which now houses the county's work-release program, to accommodate an overflow of inmates from the Detention Center.

Ms. Schenning, a county prosecutor, said her group sent a letter of opposition to County Executive Roger B. Hayden, arguing that accepting federal prisoners was wrong no matter how badly the county needed money to upgrade its jails.

"It's inappropriate to further increase the prison population with this type of prisoners -- prisoners for which Baltimore County has no responsibility -- jailed in a facility within 100 feet of houses," she said.

Mr. Hayden and county Sheriff Norman M. Pepersack, who oversees jail operations, did not return a reporter's calls last week.

Lisa Keir, spokeswoman for County Councilman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th, said the Towson-area representative knew little about the proposal other than it was still at the "what if" stage. A community meeting is planned for June.

William and Elizabeth O'Donnell, whose back yard borders the chain-link jail fence, said the plan to house federal prisoners near their home could jeopardize their safety.

"These are not the kind of people -- drug kingpins and other criminals with serious backgrounds -- that should be surrounded by families with young children and a university filled with young men and women," Mr. O'Donnell said, alluding to nearby Towson State University.

While it may be convenient for federal officials to house the prisoners near the U.S. District Court, he said, it means more worries for residents already outnumbered by the current prison population.

"It's 20 spaces now, but what will it be next year when the drug problem becomes worse?" Mr. O'Donnell asked. "You can't settle the problem of overcrowding in the jail by increasing its population."

Charles S. Culbertson, a retired engineer and member of the county Planning Board, said he and other homeowners were "already burdened with the number of the jail's visitors parking and gathering in our community."

Scott A. Sewell, U.S. marshal for Maryland, said the 20 federal prisoners proposed for the site have -- in many cases -- committed less violent crimes than the hundreds incarcerated at the Detention Center.

"People hear 'federal prisoner' and they think it's terrible," said Marshal Sewell, whose agency is responsible for housing and transporting those charged with federal crimes. "These are not murderers and rapists. They're local people waiting for trial in federal court. They're non-violent, white-collar criminals, drug offenders or parole violators."

Marshal Sewell said a shortage in federal jail space forced his department to make housing arrangements with area officials in exchange for money to help expand or upgrade existing jail facilities.

He recalled one Carroll County official who turned down his offer and jested: "We don't want your white-collar prisoners here with our local murderers and rapists."

But other jurisdictions have accepted the deal. Counties participating in the federal program include Montgomery, Prince George's, Queen Anne's and Caroline.

In an effort to persuade Baltimore County to cooperate, the U.S marshal's office reserved $500,000 that would be distributed to the county as it upgraded its jail system to meet federal guidelines for inmates.

"The real decision of what to do with it will be Baltimore County's," the marshal said. "We don't care if they keep our prisoners in the old jailhouse or expand the Detention Center -- so long as we're guaranteed 20 spaces for 20 years."

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