Tighter Security Pledged For Cedar Knoll

April 19, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

The District of Columbia's chief of Human Services said that more guards, new campus patrols and new door locks will help end an era of continuous escapes from the Cedar Knoll youth detention center in western Anne Arundel County.

"The measures we have taken are unprecedented," Vincent Gray told a group of West County residents in Jessup Thursday night.

He detailed plans to nearly double the number of guards and hinted that the 22-acre campus may soon be fenced. "Every one of us understands your frustration. . . . It will be solved, I promise you."

He said that "in two weeks or less" there will be an added measure of security installed on the perimeter of the center, but declined to elaborate. He said he did not want to alert Cedar Knoll inmates to the plans.

Asked after the meeting if the campus would be fenced, Cedar Knoll superintendent John Henderson said one could "read between the lines" of Gray's remarks.

Residents of Jessup and Maryland City,who live two to four miles from Cedar Knoll, have been complaining for years about lax security at Cedar Knoll and the center's failure to notify police quickly of escapes.

Residents' fears were realizedin February, when a group of escapees knocked a woman to the ground outside the Jessup post office and stole her car. Years ago, said Maryland City resident Karl Harzer, a group of escapees broke into a vacant home he owned and started a fire in the kitchen.

The center, near the Howard County line, is home to 160 boys between 14 and 21 years old who have been convicted of juvenile offenses or are facing charges. Since January 1990, 43 boys have escaped from the grounds, and 49 fled the custody of Cedar Knoll officers while on school or work assignments.

Between new hires and transfers from other facilities,Gray said 77 youth corrections officers will be added to the Cedar Knoll staff by the end of next month. Last month, a Human Services spokesman said there were 82 officers at Cedar Knoll, in addition to social workers, teachers and medical staff.

The district government also decided to deploy armed city police officers in cruisers to patrol the campus perimeter around the clock. Henderson said there will beeight officers in four cars patrolling at all times.

Door locks have been replaced, Gray said, in an effort to end the confusion aboutwho has keys to what doors. And, he said, wooden dormitory doors will be replaced by steel.

To ease residents' concern about public notice of escapes, Gray offered to have the center added to the Patuxent Institution's public warning system, in which a siren sounds in theevent of an escape from the complex of seven Maryland state prisons.When they hear the siren, residents may call a special number for information on the escape. When asked how much money all this would cost the District of Columbia, Gray said, "Lots," but could not name a specific figure.

While assuring about 30 residents at the Jessup Community Hall that the District of Columbia is committed to improving Cedar Knoll security, Gray said his department continues to work to comply with a court order to close the center. Under the court order, Cedar Knoll was supposed to be closed in December 1987, but the deadline has been pushed back several times because the district was unable to create a system of youth rehabilitation programs to replace Cedar Knoll.

Cedar Knoll "has suffered from being in this limbo state," said Gray. "No money was being spent because everyone assumed it was going to be closed."

"We're going to try to turn things around,"said Henderson, a 22-year veteran of the Washington correctional system who moved from the superintendent's job at the Lorton youth center in Virginia to Cedar Knoll in February. Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly put Henderson in charge after 15 youths escaped in two weeks.

Since then, six boys have run off and not been recaptured.

Residents seemed a bit skeptical but reassured that the district government this time may be serious about protecting their neighborhoods.

"I'm apprehensive, but also pleased that Mr. Gray and Mr. Hendersonseem sincere," said Ray Smallwood, president of the Maryland City Civic Association. "It's probably the most sincere meeting we've had inthe last 15 years."

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