C Dorm at pen termed 'decrepit' and 'unfit'

July 18, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff William Thompson contributed to this article.

The C Dormitory at the Maryland Penitentiary, where inmates held hostages for almost 23 hours the last two days, is "decrepit" and "unfit for prisoners," and should have been torn down long ago, according to state officials.

But the state prison system, boxed in by tremendous overcrowding, has needed the space at C Dorm and has even increased the population there in recent years.

Two years ago, state Public Safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson told legislators he wanted to tear down the "unfit" C Dorm, which then housed only 75 inmates.

Tuesday night, when the hostage crisis began, C Dorm housed about 260 maximum-security inmates, many of them serving life terms for murder, according to a prison spokesman. Of those, 155 inmates were housed in two-man cells. Another 54 inmates were living in open dormitories, which correctional officers say is the most unsafe housing arrangement in the penitentiary.

C Dorm, constructed in the early 19th century, is the oldest Division of Correction prison in use.

C Dorm inmates have submitted written complaints about their living conditions, said prison spokesman Gregory M. Shipley. Shipley would provide no details of the complaints but said state negotiators tried to placate inmates yesterday by showing them progress reports on two 192-bed maximum-security buildings due to open this fall in Jessup.

Only four correctional officers were on duty Tuesday night in C Dorm. They were charged with guarding the 260 inmates, many of whom were out of their cells or dormitories for evening recreation.

"It's not only C Dorm, it's the whole Pen situation," said Archer Blackwell, associate director of Local 92 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents some correctional officers at the prison. "It's

outdated. It's overcrowded. It's not as secure as it should be because of the way it's structured. Officers watching 200 or 300 inmates -- it's kind of hard to say that's adequate."

In November 1989, state legislative analysts strongly recommended tearing down the decrepit building.

"This facility is costly to operate, and the facility presents a physical security risk to the corrections staff because of the violent history of these maximum security inmates housed in 'C pTC Dorm' and the physical layout of the living space," the analysts said.

The legislature has authorized money for demolishing C Dorm. A schedule prepared by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services in September 1990 showed that the planned demolition was to begin in February of this year and be completed by October.

But that project never began, as officials had nowhere to send the maximum-security inmates housed there. Officials have instead concentrated on removing inmates from the prison's South Wing, another antiquated facility where a guard was stabbed to death in 1984.

"The C Dorm is probably in the worst shape of any DOC facilities," said state Del. Timothy F. Maloney, chairman of a House appropriations subcommittee that oversees prison budget issues. "There's simply no place to put the inmates."

"The bottom line is these kind of events are less susceptible in modern prisons like we're building in Jessup and Hagerstown," said Maloney, D-Prince George's.

After the hostage ordeal ended last night, Robinson said he and inmates agree on one thing. "The inmates are with us," Robinson said. "We want to provide more modern facilities for them."

Prison officials have told legislators that while they would like to demolish C Dorm, tearing it down would be problematical. The five-story building abuts the prison's outer security wall and the hospital. Demolishing its thick granite walls could possibly damage the nearby structures, officials said.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer yesterday attributed some of the problems at the penitentiary to the age of the building. He said he hashad little luck convincing a reluctant legislature to approve money to demolish the entire penitentiary and replace it with a modern prison.

"We have been waiting two years for an OK from the state legislature to tear it down," he said yesterday in Annapolis. " We're building prisons as fast as we can. The longer( a new prison) is delayed,the more crowded it will get."

Schaefer said some of the inmate complaints may have merit,but he did not think the food is to blame for the uprising.

" I don't think the food's bad," he said." I'll look into that."

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