You're paying $90.41 for corrections. Is it worth it?

James Foley

May 31, 1991|By James Foley

IF YOU live in Maryland, you might be proud to know, or even feel safer to realize, that more money is spent on your police protection than the national average. Marylanders receive $101.53 per capita worth of police protection, or 2.3 percent above the average of $99.27.

What you may not feel so good about is that each Marylander spends $90.41, on average, for "corrections" -- that is, for operating the state prisons.

That is 23.6 percent above the national average.

What's more, the state's spending on corrections is higher today because the latest figures (from the Justice Department) are for 1988.

One reason the expenditures must be higher is that the state Division of Correction's population is up another 13 percent since 1988, currently hovering around 17,000. Prison ' construction is under way again. These inmates (15,000 in 1988) were the recipients of $417.9 million in construction -- or $27,860 per convict.

These numbers do not include any further court costs, emergency fire, police or medical services or support services provided by other state agencies such as the state Department of Education. They also do not include the construction of 2,500 new cells now in the works. At $70,000 per cell, that comes to another $42.5 million.

And that is just to build them. Build them, and prisoners will come -- at great public expense.

At $90.41 per man, woman and child, or $27,859.87 per convict, was the money well spent?

Inmates rebelled and went on strike at five major Division of Correction institutions over the past four years, and there was a major melee last weekend at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown in which nine officers and more than 30 inmates were injured. (Hagerstown houses 600 more prisoners than it was designed for.)

There was also the infamous baseball bat uprising in the penitentiary yard in Baltimore that sent inmates and officers alike to area emergency rooms. The Eastern Correctional Institute near Princess Anne has seen inmate sit-downs over excessive heat, lack of hot water and other conditions, while officials spent even more money scrambling to patch one Band-Aid onto another to keep the institution operating. The House of Correction in Jessup was the scene of a peaceful inmate work stoppage over poor living conditions. Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown was the scene of inmates again attacking officers with baseball bats (which are no longer available for recreation).

Last May 15, the Hagerstown prison almost became Maryland's Attica, as local police, state troopers and correctional officers from neighboring institutions faced off with 500 inmates for 10 hours after the yard was closed. Only emergency negotiations saved lives. It should be clear at this point that inmates are entirely dissatisfied with the $27,859.87 that was spent on every one of them.

Taxpayers also might feel unhappy over supporting a corrections system that consistently turns out ever more violent recidivists. Recidivism rates in Maryland remain above the national average, and one needs only pick up a newspaper to be enraged by yet another ex-offender committing a series of heinous crimes.

That is what you get for $90.41.

The state is currently seeking the death penalty against Stephen Williams for the alleged murder of a 7-year-old child. He was at Hagerstown in 1990. The state is seeking several death penalties against John Thanos, another prisoner released from the Maryland prison system (two months premature due to a mistake), who allegedly murdered three teen-agers in a two-week crime spree.

For $90.41 per capita, Marylanders get crowded, explosive prisons and a higher recidivism rate than the national average. They get people like Thanos out on the street before the expiration of their terms.

They get a corrections system that doesn't correct.

James Foley, an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown, is a senior at Frostburg State University studying applied mathematics and business administration.

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