Inmate space in place, but staff lacking

Some available areas at detention center in Annapolis unused

Glen Burnie jail crowded

Officials won't lower hiring standards to fill 40 to 45 vacancies

March 29, 2002|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County has more than enough space at its two detention centers to house criminals sentenced to jail. Especially since last year, when a $15 million renovation and expansion project at the Jennifer Road facility in Annapolis was completed.

So why are inmates at the Glen Burnie jail sleeping on the floor while gleaming new wings at the Annapolis detention center stand empty?

Simple, corrections officials say. They don't have enough staff to open several areas of the Annapolis center, which leads to crowding at the Glen Burnie facility, built less than five years ago on Ordnance Road.

If the new wings were opened to relieve crowding, said Richard J. Baker, superintendent of the county's two detention centers, "you'd have inmates unsupervised, and that's not acceptable."

Anne Arundel County administrators aren't the only ones facing staffing problems. Law enforcement and corrections officials around the region report difficulty recruiting and retaining officers.

At the same time, Anne Arundel County facilities, like others, must deal with more and more inmates. Anne Arundel's problem is different because it has enough space to accommodate the 1,000 or so prisoners typically housed at the two jails.

Yet, several dozen inmates often sleep on the floor at the Ordnance Road detention center, especially when offenders serving weekend jail time report.

The population dipped to fewer than 1,000 this year, but "it hasn't really improved," Baker said.

Every weekend, Ordnance Road Administrator Bill Martin and Jennifer Road Administrator Robin Harting play a numbers game, swapping inmates to fill cells in an attempt to avoid setting up what inmates call the "boats," plastic beds that resemble sleds with a mattresses inside.

Because most inmates serving weekend sentences report to Glen Burnie, a minimum-security facility, Martin often has to put the temporary beds in dayrooms that are designated for church services, counseling and quiet recreation.

But prayer meetings and card games take second place to ensuring that inmates can be watched, officials say.

Administrators worry that they might soon have to use recreation areas to house prisoners.

Within the next month or so, officials predict, cells will overflow again. "It always peaks in the summer, and then peaks again around November," Baker said.

The increase could force Martin to turn the gymnasium at the Glen Burnie jail into a makeshift dormitory on weekends.

"Correctionally speaking, it's a dangerous thing to do," said Martin, noting that without recreation, inmates have more time to cause trouble. "This is something we don't want to do."

The lack of space and staff also means that the drug treatment, education and job training programs the Glen Burnie jail was designed to provide are limited to four of every 10 inmates, Martin said. "The resources aren't adequate," he said. "Even if I could staff the programs, where would I put the people?"

Administrators keep doing what they've been doing: going to every job fair in the region and running large help wanted ads in newspapers and in local movie theaters. A large recruitment billboard over the eastbound lanes of U.S. 50 on the way to Ocean City seeks to attract recent graduates and others in search of employment.

Baker said staff recruitment bonuses have been offered in an effort to fill vacancies. An employee who finds an officer who stays one year receives a $500 bonus, Baker said.

"We've only had a couple people find someone, and it remains to be seen whether they'll stay in the job for a year," he said.

Detention center officials say they're unwilling to consider lowering hiring standards to fill the 40 to 45 vacancies in the jails.

Although about a third of all applicants pass the written examination to become county correctional officers, fewer than 10 percent pass the background investigation that weeds out applicants with criminal records, Baker said.

The county pays a private contractor $300,000 a year to staff lockups at district courts because it can't free officers from the two jails. Overtime for corrections officers is projected to cost about $1.6 million this year.

Chris Gaskins, 21, an inmate from Laurel due to be released from the Jennifer Road detention center in May after walking away from a county work-release detail in Glen Burnie last March, said the crowding situation takes its toll on staff.

"I think it puts them in a bad mood," he said.

On weekends, the situation is especially tense, he said.

"There's no space, no privacy," Gaskins said, echoing other inmates. "The portions of food are smaller."

Gaskins said many of the inmates who arrive on weekends have not been to jail before.

"It's part of the shock treatment, so they can see what's like in here, so they get the message across," he said.

"A few have done time before," Gaskins said. "For them, this is just an inconvenience."

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