Dog days at the pen

July 19, 1991

Troubles at the Maryland Penitentiary are as predictable as the arrival of summer's dog days. This year the hot weather came early, and so did the troubles. Fortunately, no one was killed and no officers were seriously injured this week when a group of armed inmates took two guards hostage and held them in a daylong standoff before surrendering peacefully on Wednesday.

You don't have to look far to find the cause of these annual confrontations. The 180-year-old penitentiary is an antiquated, overcrowded facility originally designed to hold a maximum of 700 to 800 inmates. This week the inmate population was 1,005; in recent years it has risen as high as 1,100. Since 1985 the state has been under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding. The filthy, dungeon-type conditions inside the prison are deplorable, and even state Public Safety Director Bishop L. Robinson concedes that inmate disturbances like the one that erupted this week are inevitable in such a situation.

It will be years before construction on a new maximum security facility is completed, and by then a swelling inmate population could make overcrowding just as serious a problem there as it now is at the pen. Sooner or later we are simply going to have to accept the fact that we can never build our way out of the prison overcrowding crisis. When that recognition finally sinks in, let us hope it sparks a search for more effective alternatives to our present lock 'em-up approach to the problem of crime.

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