Prisons: Maryland Growth Industry

January 09, 1992

The recession might be acting as a drag on many Maryland industries, but there is one area where business is booming: state prisons. Inmates are filling up new cells as fast as they can be built. And there's no end in sight.

Maryland added five prison buildings last year, but also added 100 inmates every month. When 1992 began, there were 32,000 inmates in state prisons, Patuxent Institution, the state-run city detention center and county jails. The cost to taxpayers is staggering. Maryland's public safety expenses are expected to top $640 million this year.

More prisons are on the drawing boards: a 420-bed minimum security addition in Somerset County and a monster 2,500-bed medium-security complex in Allegany County. State taxpayers certainly are keeping building contractors busy.

But is this the best approach? Is there some other way that would cut costs and prove more effective? Many states are experimenting with alternative sentencing programs. Maryland has its own, limited version, but corrections secretary Bishop L. Robinson is moving at a snail's pace.

One alternative, boot camp, is a winner. Of the 300 inmates who have gone through the state's tough disciplinary camp in the past two years, only one has returned to prison -- a solid endorsement. Home detention for jailed inmates is also working well in many counties, though Mr. Robinson has been lukewarm about the state's own program.

Intensive probation, when beefed up with increased numbers of probation agents, is succeeding in some states. So is tying sentencing policy to the resources within a state's correctional system. The idea is to match punishment to available resources.

Some key legislators want to stop the prison-building surge and reserve prisons for violent criminals only. Based on the boot camp experience, this could lead to a lower recidivism rate and lower costs for taxpayers.

Maryland ranks No. 8 in the nation in the number of inmates per 100,000 people who are in prison. By comparison, Virginia is No. DTC 20, Pennsylvania is No. 35 and West Virginia is No. 48. Clearly, this state likes to lock up criminal offenders far more than its neighbors. But at what price? The high incarceration rate doesn't seem to have had any deterrent effect. Meanwhile, the state's penal expenses continue to soar.

Legislators should press Mr. Robinson and Gov. William Donald Schaefer to slow Maryland's prison-building boom and divert resources into alternative punishment programs. Simply putting up more fortresses year after year doesn't make sense any more from either a correctional standpoint or a fiscal standpoint.

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