About-face by Glendening? New high-security prison: Administration may be reassessing its previous opposition.

September 15, 1997

IF COMMENTS from Maryland's public safety chief signal a reversal of the Glendening administration's opposition to building another maximum-security prison, we can only say: It's about time.

Longer sentences mandated by the legislature for serious crime mean prison overcrowding won't disappear. More space must be found to house these inmates. The problem is especially acute for the most violent offenders. In the past decade, the number of prisoners serving life sentences or on death row has risen 80 percent -- from 1,097 to 1,900 inmates. That number is growing by 90 a year.

Yet since he entered office, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has been in a state of denial. He cut off prison-construction plans and NTC embraced a "truth in sentencing" concept stressing alternatives to jail time. He failed, though, to put up the money to create these new options.

So officials have continued to cram inmates into existing space, which has led to explosive overcrowding. Underlining the danger was a series of brawls in May at a Jessup annex housing violent inmates that left 16 guards injured.

But then this week Bishop L. Robinson, state corrections secretary, told legislators "there is a dire need now to build another maximum-security facility." He wants planning money from the governor for a 500-cell addition at the new Cumberland prison complex.

Previously, Mr. Robinson had sent another message -- that there wasn't any need to keep adding prison space. He was trying to justify the governor's decision to cut off funds for prison expansion. But lawmakers in 1997 forced Mr. Glendening to add a $12 million to the budget for more cells anyway.

Now that money becomes a down payment on a far larger structure. While state officials talk of a $50 million facility, that figure may rise dramatically as extra security precautions are designed into a building that will contain 500 cells for the state's most violent inmates.

The governor's delaying tactics, unfortunately, mean the new cells won't be ready for three or four years. Interim methods must be found to house the rising tide of "lifers" until then without sparking inmate unrest.

Prisons are very expensive to build. Yet until Governor Glendening puts in place proven alternatives to incarceration, the only answer for judges and lawmakers in determining sentences is prison time. Mr. Robinson's request for 500 more prison beds recognizes that reality, however grudgingly.

Pub Date: 9/15/97

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