Jail's new warden confronts problems of crowding, money and morale

January 15, 1995|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Sun Staff Writer

John J. O'Neill Jr., who officially takes over tomorrow as warden of the Harford County Detention Center, says the primary problems he will encounter there are familiar: too many inmates and not enough money.

For the past six weeks, Mr. O'Neill has worn two hats, overseeing the Detention Center while continuing to work as the county's director of procurement, a post he has held for four years.

He also handled the double duty of procurement director and acting warden for six months in 1993.

Mr. O'Neill's warden's hat becomes his only one tomorrow, but he said last week that he will "probably be back [to the procurement office] to help out."

His procurement experience will help him manage the Detention Center, he said, because both jobs require making do with what's available.

The Detention Center was designed to hold 180 inmates, Mr. O'Neill said. On Thursday, the jail's inmate count was 287, including 20 women, he said.

"When that total hits 300, it's critical, because we can't jam in any more," he said.

If the number of female inmates exceeds 24, thin mattresses are placed on the floor to accommodate the additional women.

"That's when I drop everything and start making calls to determine who can be moved out," Mr. O'Neill said.

Sometimes, he said, Division of Correction officials are able to help relieve the overload if the state prisons have any vacant beds.

"Sometimes, we have to go to a judge and ask for an early release of an inmate who may be a few days short of completing a sentence," Mr. O'Neill said.

Harford's judges "have been very good about trying to help when we are jammed up," he said, but releasing inmates early to relieve crowding is only a temporary solution. Permanent help will come when an expansion project is completed.

"That won't happen for about two years," the warden said.

The $10 million expansion project calls for three 48-bed dorms and four beds in a medical unit, but there is a down side to adding beds, Mr. O'Neill said.

"Some of our space for offices, records and visiting will have to be torn down before construction can begin, and that is really going to put a strain on everyone, staff as well as inmates," Mr. O'Neill said.

Bid specifications will go out as soon as recent increases in construction costs can be evaluated, he said.

"Everything is being studied again to see if our plans will have to be adjusted, or if we can come up with the money to pay for the additional costs."

The financial shortage stands at $1.2 million, just about the price of one of the three 48-bed dormitories, Mr. O'Neill said.

"We may have to start construction on only two" and build the third later, he said.

Since expansion to alleviate crowding is two years away, a pretrial-release program is being pursued, Mr. O'Neill said.

About 50 percent of the inmates are awaiting trial, he said. In a pretrial-release program, a staff member would review the history of an inmate, look at the arrest circumstances and provide information to judges at bail-review hearings.

Judges likely would reduce bail for some inmates, and thus make it easier for them to post bail. That ultimately would help relieve crowding at the Detention Center, Mr. O'Neill said.

Another option to help with overcrowding will be looked at soon when county officials, including judges and jail personnel, tour a Baltimore County program for DWI (driving while intoxicated) offenders in a renovated building at the state's former Rosewood Center in Owings Mills.

"They have openings, so we're hoping we can have some of our DWI offenders placed in their 28-day alcohol-abuse program, where the offender is on work release but gets the treatment he needs," Mr. O'Neill said.

Typically, DWI offenders are given short sentences at the Detention Center, if they are not placed on probation.

When empty beds are needed, getting even a handful of offenders into the Baltimore County program would relieve Harford's overcrowding.

The new warden said he also is concerned about inmate and staff morale. He said he will continue the exercise program, which gets inmates outdoors for about 40 minutes at least once a week.

But secure courtyard space is limited and outdoor temperatures must be at least 50 degrees for inmates to get outside, he said.

"We do not have room to store inmates' coats, or we could get them outside more often," Mr. O'Neill said.

Staff morale has improved some, the warden said, alluding to the negative publicity surrounding the Detention Center since the death of inmate William Ford in an isolation cell in March 1992 set off a series of investigations.

A Harford grand jury ultimately concluded that the inmate, who was serving a 30-day sentence for drunken driving, had killed himself. By then, the county already had paid $400,000 to Mr. Ford's family to settle a threatened lawsuit.

Staff morale suffered again after another inmate, Neicey D. Aldridge, 24, of Aberdeen, died July 24 at Fallston General Hospital after an asthma attack she suffered at the detention center. Her family has filed a notice of intention to sue the county.

Ms. Aldridge was serving a 90-day term for probation and traffic violations. Her death cast a shadow on the jail's medical procedures.

County officials are studying the possibility of bidding the jail's medical services contract to private vendors, Mr. O'Neill said.

He said inmates on medical watch are checked every 15 minutes, and the jail's staff is very aware of their potential medical problems.

"If the situation is critical -- if the inmate is believed to be suicidal, for example -- we may even have an officer in eye contact with the inmate 24 hours a day," Mr. O'Neill said.

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