City Jail transfer will change lives of jailed, jailers

July 01, 1991|By Ann LoLordo

When the state of Maryland takes control of the Baltimore City Jail today, the city will be rid of a financial drain, the state's public safety chief will have a chance to create a model pretrial program for offenders, and Felix W. Smith will be out of a job.

From Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke down to Correctional Officer Smith, the merger of the largest local detention center in Maryland with the state's pretrial release system promises to have a great and varied impact on institution and individual alike.

The jail's 850 employees already are feeling the effects. Correctional officers, who have been undergoing state-mandated drug testing, and the other staff will arrive for work today as six-month probationary employees. The medical staff that cares for an estimated 2,600 inmates who are housed in the antiquated, Gothic stone building will be working for yet another health provider -- the fourth in three years. And the union members among the employees will lose their collective bargaining rights.

Still, state public safety chief Bishop L. Robinson says the "future is very bright" for City Jail workers.

For the inmates, the majority of whom are awaiting trial, the new administration is taking steps to better monitor their stays. Inmates will be required to wear identification wristbands. The state has purchased a special computer system that will identify inmates by their fingerprints, enabling jail officials to track a prisoner's movement through the jail and to reduce the chance of mistaken releases. Inmates in the jail's home monitoring program will be subject to the tougher restrictions of the state's home detention unit.

At the same time, Mr. Robinson wants to bolster pretrial services for offenders, to reduce the number of inmates who are jailed while awaiting trial and to increase the length of work details for those inmates.

"There are offenders in this place that don't need to be here," Mr. Robinson told a legislative subcommittee last week during a briefing on the state's takeover of the jail.

Mr. Robinson's plans for the new Division of Pretrial Services and Detention are ambitious. They include construction of a previously proposed 800-bed wing that will be built next to the jail in downtown Baltimore and will contain a state-of-the-art facility in which all people arrested in Baltimore will be booked and charged.

"This is a unique opportunity . . . to become a model for the nation," Mr. Robinson said. "This is the first time the state is providing supervision over offenders from pretrial through release."

The management team assembled by Mr. Robinson -- a group that includes a lawyer and community corrections specialist from New York, a 30-year veteran of the state prison system and the finance director of the city police department -- have their work cut out for them.

They inherit a jail with a troubled history, a facility that is more than 100 years old and that only two years ago was bulging at the seams. They inherit a correctional institution where inmates frequently outfoxed their jailers and escaped, key security posts were left unmanned and classification records went unfiled.

The jail is under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, a long-standing decree -- relating to medical care, fire and safety issues and programs -- that has been aggressively monitored by U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman and two court-appointed masters. Since last year, when the jail added 100 new beds, the inmate population has consistently been below the court-ordered cap of 2,813. And earlier this year, the medical contractor at the jail received accreditation by the National Correctional Commission on Health Care Standards.

Mr. Robinson has pledged to "extend every good-faith effort" to ensure that jail employees will receive the same pay or only slightly less when they are reclassified as state workers in January. He also expressed confidence that the state would be able to get out from under the federal court order because of its commitment to improve operations in the jail.

"I think they've had a tremendous first 100 days," Delegate Timothy Maloney, D-Prince George's, said last week, following a legislative tour of what will now be known as the Baltimore City Detention Center.

But Mr. Maloney, who chairs a powerful appropriations subcommittee on corrections, said, "The costs have been tremendously underestimated, particularly in the areas of food services, health and renovations. There are a couple of decades of neglect that the state is going to have to address."

The proposed fiscal 1992 budget for the new Division of Pretrial Services and Detention is $45.2 million. Of that, $42.9 million is for the Baltimore detention center. The jail's current budget is $39.2 million.

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