Allegany residents welcome prison 487 to be employed

economic boost needed after 1980s job losses

July 14, 1996|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND -- When two dozen men arrive by bus this week for a lengthy stay in Western Maryland, one of the community's most eagerly anticipated employers will be officially open for business.

To a region devastated by factory closings and the loss of thousands of jobs in the 1980s, the visitors' accommodations mean a windfall: $128 million in construction, a $30 million annual budget and 487 new jobs, most with salaries starting at $22,000.

It doesn't seem to matter that the newcomers will include murderers, rapists, drug addicts and child molesters. In fact, none of the convicted felons will stay here fewer than eight years, and most will remain longer.

The opening of the Western Correctional Institution, a 1,300-bed, medium-security state prison near Cumberland, is unique in the modern annals of Maryland correctional facilities.

Communities in the past have reacted angrily to the prospect of having a state prison built in their neighborhood, but people here embraced the idea. Five years ago, local leaders asked Gov. William Donald Schaefer to put a prison in their county. This week -- though the exact day has not been set -- their wish will be granted.

"People are hungry for it," said Bernard L. Loar, president of the Allegany Board of County Commissioners. "These are good-paying jobs, and we don't have to worry about layoffs."

That's a compelling argument in Cumberland, and it helps explain why the county has welcomed not one but two medium-security prisons in the 1990s. Nearly two years ago, a 1,024-bed federal prison that opened in an industrial park about five miles southeast of Cumberland also received a warm reception.

Cumberland would seem an unlikely place for a prison-building boom. With 75,000 residents, Allegany County does not produce enough crime to fill either facility. The mountainous region is a nearly three-hour drive from the source of most of the state's crime, the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

But what it lacks in location, it makes up in the motivation of its work force. Western has been built on a 160-acre site in an area known as Cresaptown that was once home to Celanese Corp., a synthetic fiber producer that had as many as 5,000 employees in its prime.

The huge complex along U.S. 220 closed in 1983. With the subsequent shutdowns of Cumberland's Pittsburgh Plate Glass and Kelly-Springfield tire plants, thousands of workers lost their jobs. Many were forced to commute long distances to find work, including those who traveled 70 miles east to the state prisons in Hagerstown.

Despite efforts to attract new employers, Allegany's unemployment rate remains high. It was 8.2 percent in May, fourth-highest among Maryland counties.

"There's still plenty of people down here who can't make a living," said Mel Ziler, 51, of Cumberland, a former Celanese steamfitter who is now Western's maintenance chief. "If you're a kid coming out of high school, at least you have a chance at employment at a prison."

A dozen years ago, before some of the major layoffs, the county rejected a proposal to build a state prison near Cumberland. That project ended up in Somerset County as the Eastern Correctional Institution.

By 1991, Allegany County had lost its reticence. When Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, went looking for a new prison site, he found a place that wanted it.

"They stood up and cheered when I told them I was going to build a prison in their community," Robinson recalled. "I felt like MacArthur. I told them I'd be coming back with a prison."

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat who leads the pro-prison campaign, said the prison's recession-proof jobs looked a lot more attractive after the devastating losses of the 1980s.

"We are the first to unabashedly go out and ask for a prison,"

Taylor said. "I'd like to think we're a little more enlightened than other communities."

Community leaders expect Western to establish a low profile and not interfere with the region's other emerging taxpayer-supported industry -- tourism.

From a scenic rail line between Cumberland and Frostburg to the convention center and golf course being built at Rocky Gap State Park, the state is investing millions of dollars to lure visitors.

"Look at the Inner Harbor. Does anyone care that it's blocks from the Maryland Penitentiary?" said John R. Kirby, director of the Allegany County Department of Economic Development. "There doesn't seem to be any connection whatsoever."

The prison has hired 280 workers, mostly from Allegany County. None of the guards will be a rookie. Most live in the area and formerly commuted to state prisons as far away as Jessup.

Three of those hired are black. The inmates are likely to be 85 percent black, and the imbalance has been a concern for state legislators.

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