W. Md. prison proposed Public safety chief wants top-security, 512-inmate facility

'A dire need now'

$50 million unit in Cumberland would house violent offenders

September 10, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Faced with a steadily growing population of violent criminals, Maryland's public safety chief is proposing construction of a nearly $50 million maximum-security prison for more than 500 inmates on the grounds of the state's Cumberland correctional complex.

Bishop L. Robinson, the secretary of public safety, told legislators yesterday that he is asking Gov. Parris N. Glendening to scrap plans to build a $13 million medium-security unit at Cumberland.

Instead, Robinson said, he has asked the governor to budget $2.5 million in his fiscal 1999 budget to begin planning and designing a 512-cell facility at the Western Correctional Institution to house violent criminals.

Corrections officials have said the cost would be at least $40 million and could reach $50 million -- a bill that could be offset in part by federal aid.

"There is a dire need now to build another maximum-security facility," Robinson told a House Appropriations subcommittee in Annapolis. He said the new unit would house one prisoner to a cell because studies have shown that double-celling isn't suitable for violent, long-term inmates.

Glendening's budget secretary, Frederick W. Puddester, would not say whether Robinson's request would be granted. But legislators interpreted Robinson's statement as a clear signal that the money would be there.

"I would be very surprised if the governor did not approve Bishop's proposal," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery Democrat and the subcommittee chairman.

Robinson's proposal comes four months after a series of brawls at the Maryland House of Correction Annex in Jessup left 16 correctional officers injured, including one who was stabbed 17

times. The disturbances led to a monthlong lockdown at the maximum-security prison.

The incidents May 6-7 prompted corrections union leaders and legislators to demand that the Glendening administration end its reluctance to commit large sums of money to prison construction programs.

If Glendening includes Robinson's request in his budget, it would be the first major prison construction initiative of his administration.

As recently as January, Robinson had said there was no need to build prisons because the overall inmate population appeared to have leveled off.

Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said yesterday's apparent turnaround was the result of an increase in the number of violent offenders with long sentences.

He cited statistics showing that Maryland this year is holding 1,900 "lifers" and death-row inmates -- a figure up from 1,057 in 1987 and growing at the rate of 90 a year.

Sipes said the new prison beds could be ready by 2000 or 2001 if planning money is budgeted next year and construction money the year after that.

Some legislators questioned whether Robinson's proposal went far enough.

Del. John F. Slade III, a St. Mary's Democrat, asked whether the state should build two 512-bed prison units. Robinson said he would like to have that much space, but didn't think the state could afford a $100 million project.

Puddester would not rule out such a proposal but indicated it was highly unlikely.

"That would be more than challenging to accommodate within the capital budget," he said, noting that two-thirds of that money goes for school construction.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, supported the notion of building one new prison but balked at the idea of two.

"We have other needs besides housing prisoners in this state," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Glendening opponents said the department's proposal was long overdue.

"We really should have been addressing these questions three years ago in the first legislative session of this term," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan of Howard, the House Republican whip.

"We really should be bringing these prisons on line next year rather than after the turn of the century."

Pub Date: 9/10/97

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