Close Cheltenham

January 16, 2001|By Vincent Schiraldi

THE FIRST TIME I visited the Cheltenham Youth Facility, Maryland's most decrepit and debilitating youth prison, the tour was conducted in anger.

My guide that day in 1995 was an angry staff member. He was upset at deplorable conditions, lousy staff-to-resident ratios that turned him into a guard instead of a counselor and overcrowded conditions of up to four times as many youths as the place was designed for. He also was angry that the institution was populated by a sea of African-Americans being watched by a handful of African-American staff.

On a sweltering summer day, he took me into one of the cells and closed the door. He said he and two others staffed that cottage, with two kids occupying every room and 50 others sleeping nose-to-nose in the day room.

Every night, the staff repositioned themselves to watch some residents and escort the rest to the bathroom.

On this night, a kid had urinated into his cell's window-well because he couldn't wait. Combined with the heat, the inoperable window and the ammonia that a staff member had poured into the window-well to combat the stench, the room was unbearable.

After 10 minutes, my guide and I left the room in tears, more because of our reaction to the urine-ammonia-heat cocktail than the thought that two kids had just slept in that room.

While the facility is slightly less crowded today, daily life there is little better.

Cheltenham recently came to the public's attention because of The Sun's report of unsafe fire conditions there. Citing an imminent danger to life and safety, a fire inspector recommended closing Cheltenham in 1998. His report was swept under the rug by state officials. The Sun uncovered it.

I agree with Juvenile Justice Secretary Bishop Robinson, who said last year that Cheltenham should be torn down -- a statement he made before he knew that it needed $1 million in fire safety improvements.

There is no better time than now to plan Cheltenham's closure. Its deplorable conditions are an accumulation of neglect dating to its founding in 1872 as the House of Reformation for Colored Boys. The problems are not Mr. Robinson's fault. It's to his credit that he reduced the population there and called for the facility's demolition.

But Cheltenham is his responsibility, and the Department of Juvenile Justice's plan for Cheltenham is sorely wanting. The agency is asking for $1 million for a new sprinkler system compared to $12 million for an information management system and a paltry $3.5 million in community-based programs. Diverting Cheltenham's youth, 88 percent of whom are nonviolent offenders, into such programs could safely reduce the population there.

Further, Maryland is opening a 144-bed facility next year in Baltimore, where the majority of Cheltenham's youth reside. If the state spent $5 million on detention alternatives, it easily could reduce Cheltenham's population to 144. When the Baltimore facility opens, Cheltenham could be closed and youth and staff transferred.

Leaving Cheltenham intact presents several problems. Even if the sprinkler system were funded today, it would still take until well into 2001 to install it. At that point, Cheltenham would just be an unworkable nightmare with better sprinklers.

If the new facility is opened and the old Cheltenham remains, closing it will become nearly impossible. Bureaucracies inevitably expand to fill their allotted space. If the state misses the opportunity to transfer staff from Cheltenham to Baltimore, the department will hire new personnel with an interest in operating both places. Gradually, both facilities will be filled with nonviolent youths. In 10 years, another fire inspector will cite Cheltenham for safety violations.

Mr. Robinson has the chance to make a very real difference for Maryland's young people because, as a former public safety director, when he says Cheltenham should be closed and youth safely diverted to the community, the legislature and governor pay attention.

Maryland has a chance to make a watershed move toward true reform of juvenile justice. It's an opportunity that won't come around again soon.

Vincent Schiraldi co-chairs the Detention Committee of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition.

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