Razing of prison is faulted Keeping old walls would be cheaper, critics contend

March 09, 1993|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Staff Writer

State taxpayers are shelling out $16 million to demolish the South Wing of the Maryland Penitentiary and replace it with a minimum security prison, when another plan would have cost $6 million less and preserved the century-old building in East Baltimore.

State public safety chief Bishop L. Robinson is the chief proponent of razing the South Wing, which was closed in December 1991, a year after an inmate fell through a crumbling slate floor and landed on a tier. State prison officials insist the building must go because it does not meet "modern correctional standards."

But since 1986, five private consulting firms have recommended gutting the interior of the South Wing and keeping its three-foot thick granite walls to house cells or dormitories. As a result, the demolition plan has drawn criticism from key lawmakers in the General Assembly and a state fiscal specialist. They favor a $10 million plan that would use the South Wing to house a sorely needed 500-bed medium security unit.

Critics of the demolition plan contend it is extravagant and misdirected because the state needs more maximum and medium security beds instead of the minimum security facility that is scheduled to be completed in December 1994.

Each month, 850 to 1,000 inmates are admitted to the prison system, and about 60 percent of them are housed in medium security facilities. More than 19,700 inmates are in state facilities, prison officials say.

During the 1990 session of the General Assembly, Mr. Robinson and other members of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's administration waged an intense campaign to raze the South Wing, according to Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore, a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a result, $2 million was appropriated to demolish the South Wing, with plans to construct a 400-bed dormitory unit for $14 million.

The administration was "hellbent on tearing the place down. We tried desperately to save the building and with a significant cost savings. . . . With any amount of imagination, it could have been rehabilitated as a showpiece," Mr. Lapides said.

Sen. Charles H. Smelser, D-Carroll, chairman of the capital budget subcommittee, said he also favored renovating the building but there was "too much opposition to the idea."

State prison officials say the South Wing is a relic from bygone days and symbolizes an obsolete approach to corrections.

Its replacement, the Metropolitan Transition Services Center, will house 400 inmates while they receive occupational therapy immediately before their release. The state will advertise for bids to design and build the minimum security facility in July and October and it should be completed by December 1994, the officials say.

"The configuration of the South Wing did not suit modern correctional standards," said David Bezanson, deputy public safety secretary. "Decisions made 100 years ago do not apply in the 1990s," he said. "We will replace the South Wing with a state-of-the-art building which will have more open space and which will go a long way to reintegrating the offender back into society."

Prison spokesman J. Scott McCauley said planners at the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services have maintained that a replacement for the South Wing "was better from a logistic and administrative standpoint."

The cost differences between demolition and renovation "were nil," Mr. McCauley said.

But Sal Sabatino, the president of Cells America Inc., a Baltimore firm that specializes in prefabricated confinement areas, says the demolition plan is too costly and it does not meet the need for medium security beds.

The state rejected his firm's unsolicited bid to gut the South Wing and replace it with modular prison space. Mr. Sabatino said his proposal cost $10 million -- $6 million less than the demolition plan -- and would have created double-cell or dormitory housing for nearly 500 prisoners.

"We could have provided five floors with an estimated 100 beds per floor in dormitory style units but we were never asked about putting dormitories in the South Wing, only double cells," Mr. Sabatino said.

"The cost for dormitory style housing still could have been around the $10 million figure for tearing down the interior cells, removing a section of the roof, refurbishing the entire interior of the building and providing the floors or cells required," he said.

After reviewing all of the proposals for the South Wing, the state Department of Fiscal Services recommended renovating the building instead of razing it, said David Juppe, an administrative analyst with the department.

"Even though there were plans offered to gut the building and either drop in modular cells or build dormitories at a considerable savings, Secretary Robinson insisted on the demolition and was supported by the governor; Mr. Schaefer wanted it down too," Mr. Juppe said.

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