State Pen Held Hostage

July 19, 1991

Why have there been two major prison disturbances in Maryland in the past two months? First, 1,000 inmates took over portions of the medium-security Maryland Correctional Institution at Hagerstown in May. Now a hostage crisis at the maximum-security Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore has created new concerns about prison safety.

Both disturbances occurred in antiquated buildings. The MCIH complex is half a century old. The penitentiary dates back to the early 19th century when Thomas Jefferson was president; C Dormitory, site of the hostage-taking, is the oldest building in Maryland's prison system.

Living conditions in these complexes, especially at the penitentiary, are difficult. There is no air conditioning. Some buildings are crumbling. Nearly 1,600 inmates were crammed into MCIH at the time of the May rampage -- 600 over capacity; 260 inmates were jammed into the L-shaped C Dorm when prisoners seized control of the area -- three times the number of two years ago when the state's corrections secretary called the building "unfit."

These facilities are ill-suited for incarcerating dangerous offenders. Guarding inmates becomes an extreme hazard. Attempts at rehabilitation are meaningless.

Such violent and life-threatening episodes could be minimized if these miserable cells were replaced by modern structures designed to enhance security. Two such buildings are under construction at Jessup and should be ready this fall. Similar housing is being put up in Hagerstown.

But the pace is too slow. Neither the Schaefer administration nor the General Assembly has embarked on an accelerated building program. Yet that may be crucial if we are to avert future disturbances. The state's five-year, $350 million construction schedule has to be telescoped. That would not only vastly improve security but also permit the state to start focusing on rehabilitation programs aimed at cutting the rate of recidivism.

The state penitentiary is easily Maryland's worst prison complex. The sooner its buildings are dismantled and replaced by new structures, the better for both inmates and those who guard them. It is far cheaper to operate modern prisons, too. This week's uprising in C Dorm sounded the alarm. Let's not ignore that warning.

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