Work-release chief retiring early Stewart, who built program, will take Balto. Co. offer.

December 27, 1991|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Evening Sun Staff

Henry W. Stewart's adult work life tells part of the story of the growth of Baltimore County government over the last 25 years. It's a not uncommon story of how an ordinary county worker's idea has grown over time into a large program that most people now take for granted.

And, as Stewart prepares to retire from work-release supervision next month under the terms of an early-retirement incentive program, county government seems to be entering a less expansive phase of its history.

In July 1967, fresh out of Loyola College and starting law school at the University of Baltimore, 21-year-old Henry Stewart landed a $5,700-a-year job handling child support collections for the county Circuit Court.

Noticing that men arrested for non-payment fared well when allowed to earn money in a work-release program, Stewart suggested to the judges that other low-risk inmates could pay their debts to society the same way. Later that year, he began operating the county's first general work-release program with two prisoners in a small section of the old county jail, at Bosley Avenue and Towsontown Boulevard.

Now 46, Stewart is paid $53,500 a year as a deputy jail administrator and is in charge of 120 work-release prisoners, 105 female inmates, 150 minimum-security inmates, and between 60 and 100 inmates in a home-arrest program.

But Stewart won't be working for the county much longer.

As have 150 other county workers so far, he has signed up for the Hayden administration's early-retirement program -- an attempt to save money next year by paring as many long-term, highly paid workers as possible.

No decision has yet been made about whether Stewart will be replaced after he retires Jan. 31. Without the work-release and home-arrest programs, the badly crowded county detention facilities would be unable to handle the load of prisoners.

The terms of the county's offer were just too good to turn down, Stewart says. As a 25-year worker, he can retire now and get a bonus amounting to 5 percent of his final year's pay, full pension, and 90 percent of his health insurance premiums paid by the county. The offer is also good for workers with 20 years of service who are at least 50 years old. Ordinarily, a county worker must have worked 30 years, or be 60, to retire at full pension.

In addition, says county investment supervisor Thomas W. Shay Jr., county workers who retire after Jan. 31 will have their health insurance tied to what active county workers pay. That means that if active workers are later required to begin paying 20 or even 30 percent of their health insurance bills, later retirees would have to begin paying the same percentage. But those who take advantage of the early-out offer will be assured that the county will continue to pay 90 percent, Shay says.

In perhaps the strongest possible endorsement of Hayden's offer, Betty Howard, the retirement-system administrator, is taking it, as is William F. Laudeman, deputy director of the finance department.

Stewart says he's additionally lucky because he has a profession to go to when he retires -- his private law practice. He graduated from law school in 1971 and passed the bar in 1974, and has had a part-time domestic law practice ever since. With retire

ment, he will be able to expand his north county practice to include criminal and juvenile cases, which he was barred from accepting while helping to run the county prison system. With two kids in college and another in high school, he says he's taking a financial risk, but it's worth taking.

Of his years as a jail administrator, Stewart says he is most proud of his role in investigating a 1979 jailbreak in which a hacksaw blade smuggled between the pages of a county library book helped several dangerous inmates escape from the old jail.

He's also proud, he says, of the freedom of judgment allowed him by the county's judges, who now merely recommend work release for inmates, but leave the actual decision to grant or revoke it up to Stewart.

"I look at the nature of the offense, the employment record, and the criminal arrest record, and then sometimes I take a risk" if he thinks an inmate will work out, he says. So far, none of his decisions has turned into a criminal horror story. He says he has a soft spot in particular for older black inmates who may have had a rougher time than they deserved when jailed as youths.

He leaves at a time when the county is awaiting state approval of $17 million promised for a 216-bed expansion of the 1982 detention center on Kenilworth Drive, about six blocks away from the 1956-vintage jail building where he works. The county has added 76 beds in portable trailers, next to the 19th century stone jail building that now houses work-release prisoners.

With the complexities of jail administration 1990s-style, and the county's growing need for more jail space, the chances that a 21-year-old law student could spark the kind of new program that Stewart created seem slim at best.

Stewart, for one, is satisfied with his work for the county. "They gave me everything. I got more than I gave," he says, despite the years of being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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