Fire safety work slated

Cheltenham facility to have sprinklers installed by July

Nearly yearlong delay

Merits of investing in detention center a subject of debate

January 21, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The Department of Juvenile Justice has continued to house more than 100 youths in violation of the fire code for about a year since work was expected to begin on installation of a new sprinkler system at Cheltenham Youth Facility.

Work has been delayed until this month on the $385,000 system, which will be installed in three 1950s-era cottages that are scheduled to be demolished in about three years.

Because of that planned closing, a senior legislator who is a leader on juvenile justice issues described the expenditure as "wasteful." Said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr.: "It doesn't make sense. They could better spend the money on those kids. It's destined to go down this bottomless pit never to be recovered again."

But Heather Ford, director of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, called the delay "unbelievable." She said the money would be better spent on alternatives to detention.

Like other advocates, Ford said department officials had not informed her of the delay.

State officials have known about the dangers of operating Cheltenham without a sprinkler system at least as far back as 1995, when a fire inspector said there was "an imminent danger to life and safety" at the facility. Three years ago, after finding several uncorrected violations, the inspector urged an immediate closing of the facility - a recommendation disregarded by his superiors.

It was not until a follow-up inspection in 2000 that the fire marshal ordered the depart- ment to install the sprinklers. Department officials said in late 2000 that the installation would be completed late last summer.

Juvenile justice spokesman Lee Towers played down the dangers of operating the facility without sprinklers until work is complete. "We're talking about buildings that are made of concrete block," he said. "Even the mattresses in there are fire-retardant."

But Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, said state officials are taking a risk by permitting the delays. "They're praying a fire doesn't break out. We all are."

Towers said officials had no choice but to spend the money on the Prince George's County detention center. "We still have to house kids. We don't have the luxury of saying `no vacancy,'" he said.

The late start was an "unfortunate hiccup," he said, caused in part by the bankruptcy filing of the original contractor. But he acknowledged that much of the delay occurred because the department postponed the project while it re-evaluated the future of the antiquated juvenile jail.

In the state fire marshal's office, Chief Deputy Robert Thomas said juvenile justice officials informed his agency of the delays. He said his office permitted the postponement because it "made prudent sense" to give officials time to reconsider the scope of the project.

"Would we have like to have seen the project move along quicker? Yes," Thomas said. But he said the level of risk was acceptable.

Thomas said that although inspectors found about a dozen violations at the youth facility during the most recent inspection in October, fire safety has improved during the past two years. "There have been improvements made, and they are on the right track for `sprinklering' the facility," he said.

Conditions at Cheltenham have long been a subject of complaints from legislators and advocates for children. Last year, juvenile justice Secretary Bishop L. Robinson announced plans to raze the facility and replace it with two 24-bed detention facilities.

With prodding from the General Assembly, Robinson has succeeded in reducing Cheltenham's population - once as high as 400 - to 132 as of last week. The secretary said in March that he would reduce the population to 48 this year - long before the new buildings are complete.

The question delaying the sprinklers was which cottages would close and which would remain open.

Dave Humphrey, a spokesman for the state Department of General Services, said an original sprinkler contract for $952,000 was awarded in November 2000. That contract called for sprinklers in seven cottages and the infirmary.

Humphrey said work had not begun when the contractor, Twigg Corp. of Upper Marlboro, filed for bankruptcy Oct. 22.

General Services then solicited a scaled-down contract covering three cottages in November but got no bidders, Humphrey said.

A second try last month resulted in a contract with Buildall Construction Corp. of Hagerstown.

The contract is scheduled to go to the Board of Public Works on Wednesday as an emergency procurement.

It was unclear last night whether the installation had begun. Humphrey said it had, but Thomas said it would begin later this month. Both said the installation will be completed by July.

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