Last July, when the state took over the troubled Baltimore City Jail, one of its new masters declared, "This is a penal institution. This is not a social services agency, nor is it a disco. There is no party atmosphere here; it's all serious business."
The first reviews are now in. Conditions at the turn-of-the-century jail have improved, according to two prison consultants, who credit the improvements to "a new management staff as well as the state's willingness to provide resources to correct a number of long-standing deficiencies."
After the state takeover, the chronically overcrowded jail was quickly renamed the Baltimore City Detention Center. A number of correctional officers not meeting state standards were let go. To remedy long-standing problems, financial resources were found.
All this has paid off. "While it remains an old, overcrowded and poorly designed institution, the new administration is doing a commendable job in improving both security in the institution as well as the conditions of confinement for inmates," the two consultants reported to federal Judge Frank A. Kaufman.
Before the state takeover, stories circulated of inmates virtually controlling entire jail sections. Security was lax, enforcement of rules haphazard. Records were often in disarray. All these factors contributed to a situation in which lawlessness within the 2,800-inmate jail often went unpunished for officials' fear of wider disruptions.
The new state jailers have had their troubles. But whenever a systemic problem is detected, the response has usually been swift. For example, new identification procedures were quickly introduced after a prisoner held on federal drug charges managed to talk his way out of the jail on Christmas Day, posing as an inmate due to be released.
Aside from security, the state has attacked many of the long-delayed maintenance problems head-on. In the first year, the state budgeted nearly three times the amount the city spent on improving plumbing and other infrastructure deficiencies.
It would be naive to think that a simple management change would solve all the troubles of an antiquated, chronically overcrowded prison facility. The improvements at the Baltimore City Detention Center show, however, how an institution in turmoil can be turned around quickly when new leaders take charge, applying sensible and disciplined criteria for running a modern-day penal institution efficiently.