Jail with a Soul

June 23, 1994

The expansion of the Howard County jail in Jessup promises to achieve more than the usual jail augmentation. The renovations will meet the basic goals of increasing capacity and enhancing security. More impressive, however, are new programs that aim to make inmates better people at the end of their short stays -- typically 90 days -- than they were when they entered the jail.

Capacity had to be added because the facility, built 11 years ago to hold 108 inmates, is routinely overcrowded. When the new beds are in place later this summer, there will be enough space for 361 prisoners.

As jail director James N. Rollins points out, a growing number of inmates can be classified as violent. That's why he lobbied for -- and won -- the local government's approval of the funds to convert the jail into a maximum-security facility. Ironically, on the two consecutive days before ceremonies last week to dedicate the new structure, violent prisoners linked to murder cases escaped from other corrections facilities in nearby Sykesville and Frederick. The additional security at the renovated detention center will help to prevent just that sort of incident.

Also among the new security wrinkles are wall interiors filled with steel and cement. How necessary is this precaution? Ask corrections officials in Baltimore County. They are now doing the same thing to the walls at the county detention center in Towson after two inmates were recently found to have removed cinder blocks from the interior walls of their cell.

The upgraded Howard jail will be more than extra mortar and metal. If a jail could be said to have a soul, this might be it. The county health department will operate a 45-bed drug abuse treatment program inside the facility, a first for Howard County. (Previously, prisoners had to be treated in other jurisdictions.) A library will replace a cart that was wheeled through the jail once a week. And there is expected to be more room for programs such as Bible studies and educational courses that have had to share space in the chapel.

Some citizens object when creature comforts are offered to inmates. The question to keep in mind, though, is whether these things can steer a prisoner away from a life of crime. Experienced corrections officials, including Mr. Rollins, believe they can. With a humane prison experience, there is at least the chance that inmates can better develop their own humanity.

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