Tour to show off jail project

Jennifer Road center getting $27 million in improvements

`Pretty stark contrast'


January 05, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

A ceremony today at the Jennifer Road detention center is expected to pack some shock value.

The last time a large entourage of Anne Arundel County officials toured the detention center in Annapolis a couple years ago, they saw inmates double-bunked in crowded cells. Industrial fans circulated air that faintly smelled of lemon-scented cleanser and urine. Workers were processing records out of a storage closet.

Today, with the $27 million renovation and construction of an addition almost finished, officials including County Executive Janet S. Owens, council members, prosecutors and judges will get a glimpse of bright new cells.

Owens said yesterday that the old center "was dark, dingy and lacking decent facilities. It looked like a Third World country."

Although some areas are still surrounded by bulldozers and under construction, the tour will include the new processing center that is triple the size of the old intake area to better handle the 11,000 inmates who are processed each year at the center.

The new center has distinct areas where inmates will enter the detention center and where inmates are released. Soon, offices will occupy office spaces.

"It's a pretty stark contrast," said Robin R. Harting, Jennifer Road correctional facility administrator, previewing what county officials will see this afternoon at an opening ceremony. "We've literally had to use every nook and cranny, from crawl spaces to storage closets."

It will be another month before the transfer of inmates to the new housing units in the addition starts and until booking, receiving and the new visitation areas are opened. The entire project is expected to be complete in June.

In the end, the county will have enough room to segregate certain inmates from the general population, which is housed in dorm-style cells. There will be 730 beds in all, about the capacity before parts of the detention center were closed for the construction, which began two years ago.

The center has about 440 inmates, nearly all of whom are awaiting trials or sentencing.

"What we lacked was not number of beds but specific types of beds," said the detention center's superintendent, Richard J. Baker, who oversees both county jails.

Not enough single cells were available to separate inmates who need to be in protective custody or in administrative segregation for behavioral or psychological reasons, he said. Twenty inmates share dorm cells that by today's standards should house 14 inmates. That standard will be met when the project is complete, he said.

"When the detention center was built in the late '60s and early '70s, inmates were staying for very short periods of time," Baker said. "Over the past two decades, there's been an increase in the length of time inmates are being housed and in the number of inmates. It wasn't designed for what the facility became."

By the late 1980s, the detention center's population had grown from 200 to nearly 900, including pretrial inmates and those serving sentences up to 18 months. The Ordnance Road detention center in Glen Burnie relieved some crowding when it was built in 1998, primarily to house inmates serving their sentences. But there still wasn't enough space, Baker said.

When the project at Jennifer Road is complete, the county will have about 1,290 beds for inmates, 730 at Jennifer Road and 560 at Ordinance Road.

Space will be available for inmate programs and staff development, which correction experts say are keys to a safe operation.

The staff has accepted construction delays, endured inconvenience and, at times, suffered through adverse working conditions, Harting said.

For nearly five months while the elevator wasn't usable, staff members walked up and down the stairs in 100-degree-plus heat to deliver meals to inmates. The new facility, unlike the old one, is air-conditioned.

The staff and project administrators deserve praise, Baker said. "They've really had to put up with a lot during this process," he said.

Originally, the project was to be finished by the end of 1999 or early last year, but January turned to June, and June turned to January. First, problems arose when excavation crews cleared the site for the addition. Tree stumps in the soil had to be removed before a foundation could be laid, Baker said. Then, there were problems in replacing walls and installing the heating and air-conditioning system.

The cost has risen along the way. The project initially was budgeted for $19 million. That rose to $23 million, then to $27 million.

Administrators had trouble hiring enough officers. In October, the county and union representing the detention center officers agreed to privately contract with a security company to staff District Court lockups so that officers assigned to that detail could return to the detention center to staff new security posts.

Officials say they hope to return the District Court operations to the detention center staff by the end of June.

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