Sheriff proposes idea of building 1,000-bed prison

Site could handle inmates of county, plus Md. or U.S.

Commissioners noncommittal

April 16, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

In a bold presentation to the Carroll commissioners yesterday, county Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning raised the possibility of building a 1,000-bed prison that would house the county's growing inmate population and hundreds of federal or state prisoners.

The commissioners offered little response and said they are likely months from authorizing a formal study of the possibility. Under the preliminary proposal laid out by Tregoning and George Hardinger, warden of the county's 265-bed detention center, the commissioners would select a contractor to build and pay for the estimated $100 million facility, which the county would lease with an option to buy. Half the new jail population would be local prisoners and the other half federal and state inmates, who would draw federal and state funds to help make the facility self-sufficient.

Tregoning and Hardinger said they are not sure such a drastic step is the best solution, but added that prison crowding will become worse at the detention center in Westminster - projected to be over capacity by 2006. The county has expanded the prison three times since it was built in 1971, with the most recent addition completed less than four years ago. Little or no room is left for expansion, Tregoning said.

"In order to house more inmates, we need more space," he said. "It's as simple as that."

The commissioners said a proposal for a much larger prison filled with state and federal inmates might draw serious opposition.

"I think it's a tough sell to build a facility to house people from other jurisdictions," Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said. "I'm open to putting together a study, but I have reservations about predicating our whole program on housing inmates from other jurisdictions."

Hardinger told the commissioners that before considering construction of a larger prison, the Sheriff's Department would investigate temporary measures to relieve the population strain at the detention center, which houses about 100 more inmates than it did five years ago.

He said possibilities include: relocating work-release and minimum-security programs; relocating nonviolent female inmates; constructing temporary housing in the parking lot beside the detention center; expanding the county's home detention program; and augmenting outpatient drug treatment programs.

Such measures might help the county avoid releasing droves of inmates as many crowded prison systems across the country have, Hardinger said.

Hardinger said that to meet prison needs for more than a few years, Carroll would have to build a prison with at least 600 beds. Such a structure would cost about $65 million, he said, which would make it the most expensive project ever in the county.

Carroll might be able to mitigate the cost by having a contractor build a larger facility, which could house state and federal prisoners, he said. The county could receive about $70 a prisoner a day from the federal government. By housing 500 prisoners, Hardinger said, the prison would bring in about $13 million a year in federal revenue, which could be used to pay the lease and operating expenses.

The county houses immigration prisoners in its detention center, helping Tregoning supplement his departmental budget. The program has drawn criticism from some who say it exposes the county to dangerous criminals and foreign diseases, but Tregoning has deemed the experiment one of his greatest accomplishments.

The success of the program housing immigration prisoners might pave the way for housing federal inmates, Hardinger said. He noted that Wicomico County and York County, Pa., have successfully imported such prisoners. He also pointed out his experience helping plan a 1,500-bed prison in Montgomery County.

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge was absent from the presentation because of a death in her family. County chief of staff Steven Powell said he would brief her before a new prison is discussed further. Powell estimated that it would be on the commissioners' agenda late this month or early next month. At that meeting, they would discuss appointing a committee to examine prison crowding and the feasibility of a new facility.

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