Prison presence in Western Md. Allegany: Corrections jobs are replacing industry jobs that left the county over past 20 years, but a proliferation of prisons is not welcomed by everyone.

December 08, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

CRESAPTOWN -- For Clyde H. Foor, going to prison every day puts food on his table and hope in his life.

Foor was laid off, along with 1,000 other Allegany County residents, when the Kelly-Springfield tire plant in Cumberland closed 11 years ago. Now, after several years of commuting to Hagerstown -- burning up three car engines and a marriage in the process -- the 55-year-old Lonaconing resident has a decent-paying job close to home as a corrections officer at the Western Correctional Institution in Allegany.

"If it wasn't for the prison, I don't know what we'd do," says Foor, pausing at the base of a guard tower last week while on duty at the 1,680-bed medium-security facility.

With two prisons built in Allegany in the past four years -- one federal and one state -- corrections jobs are replacing the Rust Belt industry jobs that have left the county in droves over the past two decades. Allegany does not yet rival Jessup or Hagerstown as Maryland's prison capital, but the correctional presence continues to grow.

South of Cumberland, the medium-security Federal Correctional Institution, built in 1994, and adjoining minimum-security prison camp hold 1,265 inmates. The state's Western Correctional Institution, built in 1996 on the 161-acre home of a former Celanese chemical plant, houses 1,274 inmates in four units. A newly finished fifth unit will provide an additional 384 state beds.

Now, state officials are planning to build the county's third prison -- a 512-bed maximum-security facility that would go up beside the existing medium-security institution.

The proliferation of prisons -- a county detention center is also under construction nearby -- has raised some hackles. At the behest of local elected officials, the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services will hold a public information meeting tomorrow night at Allegany College.

So far, the state has spent $1.6 million designing the new prison, but it needs funding from the General Assembly for the remainder of the $57.3 million facility.

Some Cresaptown residents have voiced fears of escapes or of the prisons attracting crime-prone families of inmates. Others voice disdain for the work.

"How many more prisons have we got to have?" asks Doug Horton, a 43-year-old roofer sitting at the bar of Pete's Parkview Tavern and Grill. "It makes this county look bad. I wouldn't want to be a prison guard. If I was starving to death, I wouldn't do it."

But there have been no escapes from the medium-security state prison near Cresaptown since it opened in July 1996. Inmates in the maximum-security facility would be even more tightly

guarded and restricted in their movement, says Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Another maximum-security prison is needed, Sipes says, because of the state's commitment to locking up violent offenders and "keeping them as long as humanly possible."

"We built in Allegany County because you couldn't find a better business climate," Sipes says, noting the eagerness of the county's elected officials and business leaders to have the facilities.

While correctional officers' pay might not match the wages offered by long-gone manufacturers like Kelly, Celanese or Pittsburgh Plate Glass, state and local officials say the prisons have been a shot in the arm for a county with the highest unemployment and one of the lowest average family incomes in Maryland.

"You're looking at recession-proof jobs," says county Commissioner Arthur T. Bond. "If I lived there [in Cresaptown], I'd probably be concerned, too. But to this point, I don't know of any negative impacts. I think the good outweighs the bad."

Bond noted that many residents of the Mexico Farms community south of Cumberland opposed building the federal prison in their midst but have since been won over. The prison's construction enabled the county to supply the area with affordable water and sewer hookups, replacing poor wells and failing septic systems.

The two prisons have accounted for one-fifth of Allegany's job growth since 1986, according to county figures. But their economic impact is even greater, because correctional officers' salaries are well above the average county wage. Veteran state prison officers can earn $31,000 a year, officials say, while federal corrections officers start at $27,000 a year.

"The benefits themselves are reason to have those jobs," says Jamey Hill, 42, who works for the U.S. Postal Service. He predicts the new maximum-security facility would draw 1,000 applicants for its 320 staff slots. "We need two new prisons, not one."

Prisons are no economic panacea. The state facility has not boosted property values in Cresaptown as some had hoped, says real estate agent Allan Macey. He figures that many of the the 584 people hired to staff the prison already lived in the county and commuted before to state corrections jobs near Hagerstown.

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