Getting tough on inmates a smart move

September 26, 1995|By Michael Olesker

JESSUP - The governor of Maryland dropped by the House of Correction the other day to announce he is getting tough on prison inmates. In doing so, he passed two important intelligence tests. He made the announcement outside the prison walls, thus simultaneously giving himself a picturesque television backdrop and enough time to blow town before the news reached the guys inside.

This governor needs a shot in the arm, popularity-wise, and getting tough on prison inmates is always a crowd-pleaser. Except among the inmate crowd. The governor said he's fed up with criminals getting life sentences in which nobody actually serves a full life, and he's not going to let it happen any more.

This recalls a conversation from some years ago, at the Maryland Penitentiary. There was an inmate everybody called Big Jake, a large bear of a man, who was asked how long he had to serve.

"I got life-plus-20 years," he declared.

"Wow," I said, "that's a long time."

"Yeah," Big Jake agreed, chuckling softly. "I still haven't figured out how I'm gonna serve that 20 yet."

He could afford to chuckle, and knew it. Life almost never actually meant life. It meant you served 12 years, or 15 years, and along the way you joined one of those inmate self-help groups, or some sort of in-house religious group ("Seventh-Day Opportunists," the jail house wits used to call them) to impress the parole board that you were a reformed man, a solid citizen now who could be trusted to be let loose on an innocent outside world.

Only, we've learned over the years, as the rate of repeat offenders kept growing, that a lot of exiting inmates could not be trusted.

In Big Jake's day, which was the the 1970s, the Maryland inmate population was well under 10,000. Last week, when Parris Glendening came here to make his announcement, it was more than 21,000. Think of that: In about 20 years, the population has doubled. In just the past eight years, it's gone up 63 percent.

In those eight years, the state of Maryland has spent $465 million to build 12,000 new prison beds, and another $200 million on local jails, which are holding 10,000 inmates beyond the 21,000 in state prisons. And yet Maryland still has some of the most overcrowded lockups in the country.

There are 1,756 inmates serving life terms, which is another number to take your breath away. Except for about 100 inmates who have specific life-without-parole terms, all of these folks fully expected to get out again: Serve a few years, join a few self-help groups, the game goes on.

Until now. The governor, he's so revolted by the crimes of eight murderers and rapists recently recommended for release by the parole commission that he wants to deny parole for practically all prisoners serving life sentences. "If you murder and rape in Maryland, and you are sentenced to life in prison, you will serve life in prison," Glendening said.

On the record, prison officials are delighted. This state is generally pretty rough on inmates: only 37 percent of offenders are paroled, and the rest released only when it's mandated by the terms of their sentences. (Pennsylvania, by comparison, paroles about 80 percent of its inmates.)

Off the record, there are misgivings. You remove inmates' hopes for early release, you make it tougher to maintain the peace inside the prisons. (This is considered a minor drawback, however, because it theoretically makes it easier to maintain the peace outside.)

For Glendening, removing parole for lifers seems like a no-lose proposition. No matter what you've heard from Ellen Sauerbrey, inmates tend not to vote in gubernatorial elections, and citizens who do vote are increasingly frightened of crime. The concept of giving a murderer and/or rapist a life sentence -- and not exactly meaning it -- has never been a popular one.

For the record, I checked up on Big Jake the other day. He was originally sentenced for the rape and murder of an 8-year-old. That life-plus-20 sentence he was given didn't exactly hold up. He was released from prison a few years ago. Last year, he died.

Under this governor's new notion, Big Jake would have died inside. And not many tears would have been shed.

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