More and good prisons needed

July 26, 2000|By Hal Riedl

WHEN I BEGAN working with Maryland prison inmates 10 years ago, we were housing about 16,500 men and women in space built for about 12,000. We now have about 23,000 in prisons built for about 17,000. Many of our local jails are equally overcrowded, and some cannot cope with overcrowding as well as the prison system.

We have a growing population of sick and aging inmates.

We have a growing population of inmates who have no hope of release.

We cage thousands of dangerous men who have very little to do but make mischief.

We can't put enough men and women to work because we can't, or won't, find enough public uses for inmate industry. Labor unions and associations of manufacturers have no wish to compete with inmate labor, and they have many more friends in the General Assembly than do the prisons.

The answer to these conditions is not, of course, to empty the prisons. A sane and humane regard for public safety will not stand for it.

But it is not true, as some say, that we cannot build our way out of the problem. To a large extent, we already have. It is no accident that crime rates have fallen as the prison and jail population has burgeoned. As we lock up repeat offenders, we take big bites out of crime.

Crime is down, but it isn't out. We should remember that the vast majority of convicted criminals get probation to keep the courts out of the gridlock that would immediately occur if the accused insisted on jury trials instead of plea bargains. The result is that a far greater number of serious offenders are at liberty than the public imagines.

A doubling of prison and jail space and a vast expansion of inmate work opportunities would be the very best investments we could make to protect the public safety and to prepare convicts for their return to society.

Few governors want to tie up their budgets in prisons. Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Townsend are no exceptions, but still they must cope with a growing prison population. We are now considering keeping some state prisoners in local jails and sending some of them to other states.

Meanwhile, in order to make room for new convicts, the state Division of Correction releases many dangerous offenders much too early.

Richard Moore, with eight felony convictions and four separate stays in state prison, was permitted to go to home detention in January. A month later, Baltimore County police Sgt. Bruce Prothero was killed in a jewelry store robbery. Moore was captured in Philadelphia and charged in connection with the killing.

Boot camp, which leads to parole, is mandatory for those who are eligible under Division of Correction rules. We force inmates in the direction of release. If a man refuses to participate, he will be punished, with the loss of good conduct time and/or the loss of visiting privileges. The same sanctions apply to the Correctional Options Program (COP), which directs inmates toward early parole.

In Maryland, an armed robber may make parole through boot camp with a sentence of up to 10 years, if he didn't actually fire a gun or hurt anyone physically. A man serving his fifth sentence of at least six months may qualify for a COP parole hearing. A man who has served two prior sentences for assault with intent to murder is eligible for a COP parole hearing; he has just returned to us with a four-year sentence for selling drugs.

To its credit the state Parole Commission is reluctant to grant such an early parole. But it happens too often, and the Division of Correction is under orders to make it happen as often as possible.

Public safety may not require the death penalty. But we can't do without prisons, and good ones.

Hal Riedl is a case management specialist with the Maryland Reception Diagnostic & Classification Center of the Division of Correction.

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