Ruppersberger sets sights on expansion of jail in Towson

Building plan calls for 1,008 new beds at cost of $75 million

July 07, 2000|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger has proposed a $75 million expansion and renovation of the county's main jail in Towson, a project designed to alleviate crowding and replace aging facilities.

Heeding a consultant's recommendation that scattered county correctional facilities be consolidated on the edge of downtown Towson on Kenilworth Drive, Ruppersberger said yesterday he will seek voter approval in the fall to borrow $32.5 million for the project. He also said he would ask the state to contribute $35 million, with the remainder coming from other county funds.

Plans call for the construction of 1,008 inmate beds in Towson beginning in 2002, along with an administration building, a 300-space underground parking area for staff and visitors and an expanded lobby that would make it unnecessary for relatives and friends visiting inmates to gather on the street outside, as they do now.

The expanded facility would allow the county to demolish the 249-bed old jail at the intersection of Bosley Avenue and Towsontown Boulevard. Built in 1956, the structure houses mostly female inmates. Five portable buildings used to house 84 work-release inmates also would be removed. A warden's house dating to 1860 would be preserved as a historic building.

While other options were considered, Ruppersberger said building additional jail space on Kenilworth Drive is the safest choice because it cuts down the amount of time needed to transport inmates to the District or Circuit Court buildings, both of which are also downtown. Sixty percent of the inmates in county jails are awaiting trial.

"It's a matter of security," Ruppersberger said. "That's one of the most important issues."

Community opposition surfaced immediately. A dozen neighbors invited to a meeting last night by Councilman Wayne M. Skinner, a Towson Republican, bristled at the idea of a larger jail in their midst.

Neighbors say they felt duped into accepting the original detention center built in 1981. Now, they say, jail staff throttle their motorcycle engines during shift changes and visitors toss trash on streets. Nearby schools and homes would suffer if the facility is expanded, they say.

"This facility cannot even control its own employees," said Sharon Frazier of the 700 block of Morningside Drive. "How on earth are you going to control what goes on inside?"

In the past decade, the county's jails have become more crowded as the police department has grown and officers have made more arrests. For years, the average inmate stay has remained steady at 35 days. But the daily inmate population has swelled from 497 in 1988 to 1,112 in 1998.

County corrections chief Dorothy M. Williams said that on average, about 100 inmates a day sleep on makeshift bunks on the floors of jail cells at the Kenilworth Drive building, meaning there are three inmates in cells designed for two. The main jail, which has been enlarged several times, is designed to hold 729 inmates. Yesterday's population was about 800, Williams said.

At the women's jail, inmates and staff endure hot days without air conditioning, she said.

"I'm sure they will be elated to have a new facility," said Williams, referring to correctional officers.

Stephen A. Carter, a principal of Carter Goble Associates Inc., a South Carolina consulting firm hired last year to study the county's corrections needs, said the proposed expansion should provide enough space until 2020.

In the next two decades, the county is expecting a slower growth rate in the prison population than what it has experienced in the past, Carter said, because of the success of alternative sentencing programs and the deterrent effect of a larger police department.

"It reflects what is happening nationwide," Carter said. "There's a leveling off."

The Kenilworth Drive location would allow the county to build on land it owns, avoiding the expense of a real estate purchase.

Skinner, the Towson councilman, said residents near the existing main jail most frequently complain of trash, loitering and parking congestion from visitors.

A larger lobby and underground parking should alleviate those problems, he said.

Consultants also have assured him that the new jail can be built with a faM-gade similar to that of an office building.

But at last night's meeting, community members said they were angry about lack of input.

"It sounds to me like it's a done deal, and it's all about money," said Don Wright, president of the West Towson Neighborhood Association.

While Skinner offered to help residents voice their concerns, he offered little encouragement that another location was likely.

"In reality," he said, "nobody wants a prison in their area."

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