The more things change at the former Baltimore City Jail, the more they seem to stay the same.
The state of Maryland took over the trouble-plagued jail last Monday. Two days later, the staff at the jail, now called the Batimore City Detention Center, freed the wrong inmate.
Then, Friday morning, a 38-year-old inmate charged with cocaine possession died of a heart attack apparently caused by a drug overdose, according to a jail spokesman.
Those kinds of problems became almost commonplace at the jail the last few years, as city officials coped with an overcrowded and crumbling facility. But, coming in the first week of state control, the incidents left officials of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services angry and embarrassed, according to one source.
"It just reaffirmed our determination to ensure that things run correctly, that these things do not occur," a spokesman for the department said last night.
The state takeover, proposed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer and endorsed by the legislature in April, is expected to ease Baltimore's ongoing fiscal problems. The state has budgeted about $43 million to run the jail during the current budget year.
Public Safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson has already predicted that the jail's budget will increase at least $7 million next year.
The state had to scurry the last few months to be ready to take over the jail July 1.
Robinson pushed out the jail's top leadership. Bernard D. Smith, three-decade veteran of the state Division of Correction who was most recently the acting warden at the Maryland Penitentiary, was recruited to run the jail. A smiling Robinson called Smith his "protege" as he presented him to a group of legislators who toured the prison recently. LaMont Flanagan was brought in from the Richmond, Va., community correctional program to oversee the jail and the state's pre-trial program.
The rank-and-file workers at the jail, meanwhile, have been placed on six months' probation and given drug tests. By the end of the year, the state will either hire the former city employees permanently or fire them. Robinson said he expects to retain most of the current staff of about 850.
Robinson is formulating plans to restore some neglected parts of the jail, including an antiquated kitchen that manages to turn out nearly 10,000 meals a day.
In the long run, Robinson hopes to build a new central booking facility next to the jail near the Jones Falls Expressway. Everyone arrested in the city would be taken to the new facility to be booked and processed into the system. That would allow the Baltimore police department to close several of its lockups, which would mean a "substantial" savings for the city, according to Robinson.
The state also has hired a new health-care contractor -- Correctional Medical Systems, the largest such company in the nation and the same firm that provides medical care in state prisons -- for the jail, where medical care has often been criticized as inadequate.
"I think there has been more done in the last 90 days than has been done in the last decade in terms of providing leadership," state Del. Timothy F. Maloney said recently. Maloney, D-Prince George's, is chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the state prison system, which now includes the jail.
State officials have been careful to commend the city staff who ran the jail. Robinson said they had worked "miracles" under trying circumstances. Flanagan said they had done a "creditable" job with limited resources.
The first mistaken release of the state regime -- which happened last Wednesday -- was resolved when the inmate returned to the jail the next day to pick up money he believed he was owed. He was quickly incarcerated again.
Meanwhile, officials were still waiting to find out if inmate Gerald B. Gray, of the 1200 block of Kitmore Road in Baltimore, died of a drug overdose. Gray was pronounced dead at University of Maryland Medical Center early Friday.
Leonard A. Sipes, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Gray was being held on federal drug charges and had been in the detention center awaiting trial since April 21.