Those Sweltering Prisons

May 31, 1991

It shouldn't come as a surprise that disturbances would erupt at state prisons in this hot weather. Overcrowded and poorly ventilated cells are ripe for disruptions as growing numbers of violent offenders are locked up for longer terms.

The first episode, a frightening riot at the medium-security Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, may have been provoked by factors other than weather. Fast, aggressive reaction by guards prevented a takeover and potential hostage situation. But the oppressive heat and overcrowded conditions -- 1,600 inmates housed in a facility built for 1,000 -- played a role.

A second disruption, at the Brockbridge Correctional Facility in Jessup, was prompted by the sweltering conditions. Fifty inmates refused to re-enter their cells and demanded ice to help cool them. That issue was quickly resolved, and the minimum-security center returned to normal.

These outbreaks underline the severe problems in state prisons. Despite efforts to improve inmate programs and build more cells, Maryland is unable to keep pace with the surging prison population.

Exacerbating the situation is the state's budget crisis. Cuts in prison spending mean fewer new guards. All Department of Education contract programs in the prisons are being terminated as a money-saving device. That means an 8 percent increase in inmate idleness, which will only increase tensions.

Over the long term, the state can take some positive steps. Eliminating central feeding areas in favor of smaller dining units would lessen the chance of another MCI-type disturbance. As new units are completed, security and inmate conditions will improve. Greater reliance on home detenSion and pre-release for non-violent offenders could slow the overflow. Enlarging the state's "boot camp" offers another avenue of relief.

But prisons also need greater resources. More, not fewer, education programs. More vocational shops and job-training programs. More drug and alcohol abuse programs.

Prisoners will always be uncomfortable when the temperature soars into the 90s. But precautions should be taken to ensure that security is adequate to meet unexpected disruptions. And state officials in Annapolis must give prison administrators the tools they need to lessen recidivism and keep inmate idleness to a minimum.

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