Inside Time Bomb On Jennifer Road

COMMENT

November 28, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

Down in the dingy hole that is the booking and receiving area of the Anne Arundel County Detention Center, a handful of corrections officers look as though they could use a good, stiff drink.

It's hard to say what is the worst thing about the detention center on Jennifer Road; it's terrible in so many ways. But booking and receiving ranks right up there.

Every time an inmate comes in or goes out of the jail, he has to pass through this department. Ideally, to minimize the odds of the wrong person's being released, there should be separate areas for coming and going. But nothing is ideal at this jail. It's a 24-hour nightmare, a disaster waiting to happen.

On this particular afternoon, things are going about as smoothly as they get in booking and receiving. Eighteen men -- all new arrivals -- are waiting in one of the large holding cells. On a really busy day, they'll squeeze 40 people in this cell.

One of the department's eight single cells is taken up with a woman in handcuffs and leg irons. She's not going or coming from anywhere. She's in booking and receiving because she punched another female inmate in the face earlier in the day.

"We put her here because we had no other place to put her," Deputy Administrator Jim O'Neill says.

In fact, there's no place to put anything at this detention center. Every crawl space and closet has been turned into a two-bit office. It's so packed that the human sweat almost oozes through the yellow block walls, even in late November. One tries not to imagine what it's like in mid-July without air conditioning.

It's been two years since the Neall administration started planning to build a new jail and longer than that since the county began studying the issue. Yet, except among those who have to deal with Jennifer Road on a daily basis, there's no sense of urgency about its problems.

Last week, the jail housed 605 inmates; the weekend before the population reached 635.

State funding standards and guidelines set by the American Corrections Association recommend 85 square feet per inmate, including dormitory and living space. Were those standards applied on Jennifer Road, "they would be at least 200 inmates over the cap," says Eric Christensen, a state budget analyst in charge of public safety projects.

In the oldest part of the jail, dormitories designed for eight people now hold 24 maximum-security inmates. Their metal bunks, tables for eating, toilets and urinals are all in the same area.

These dorms are dangerous as well as dismal. One actually has to be inside the dormitory to see what is going on there; there is no visual access from the central hallway and no place to station a guard in the narrow aisle that runs between the bars and the wall. A prisoner could be assaulted or raped, and no one would know.

At any given time, inmates who really are too dangerous to belong in a dorm are put there because the jail doesn't have enough segregated cells.

Except for the newest wing of the jail, in which spare but roomy and well-lit "pods" have their own full-time guards, nothing about this place is adequate.

The kitchen was built in 1967 to serve 200 inmates. It now has to turn out nearly 2,000 meals a day.

The laundry room was designed for 200, too. Since there's no other place to keep cleaning supplies, they are here -- not a good idea, considering that many of these supplies are flammable and the overworked washing machines are gas-powered.

No storage room for officers' weapons and ammunition. Jail officials have set up a makeshift armory in a vehicle sally port.

No female infirmary. When a woman needs treatment, they hang a piece of paper to separate her from the men.

The list of deficiencies goes on and on. To which many are probably asking, "So what?" Better conditions for prisoners are not exactly one of the pressing political issues of our day, in Anne Arundel or anyplace else. Nobody's going to get elected because he's promising more money to improve a jail.

The average voter would just as soon see inmates rot rather than spend tens of millions of dollars to build a better detention center.

It's largely the fault of the Neall administration -- which knows what a time bomb Jennifer Road is -- that the public still doesn't understand this is not a matter of making life more comfortable for prisoners. It's a matter of public safety, and the benefits to law-abiding citizens are just as great as putting more police officers on the street, an expenditure that never raises objections.

Sure, the administration has said the jail is outdated and overcrowded. But it has failed to convince people that anyone but inmates would benefit from fixing it.

People still don't make the connection between tense, miserable prison conditions and potential for prison violence. They don't realize that escapes are easier from an obsolete building than a state-of-the-art one. They forget that if it's 120 degrees inside it's not just the prisoners who suffer, but the corrections officers, too. And they never think that 99 percent of the people sitting behind bars on Jennifer Road will get out. That booking and receiving department is, after all, a revolving door.

Do we really want inmates coming out meaner and harder than they went in? Because though jail officials are trying to make Jennifer Road a civilized place, it's getting meaner and harder every day.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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