Raise a toast to the decline of Supermax era

October 19, 2003|By DAN RODRICKS

QUICHE-EATERS -- Democrat quiche-eaters, not the Republican kind -- gave us Supermax, the 300-bed tomb of a penitentiary that the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services wants to tear down just 14 years after it opened.

It opened, in one of the most grotesque celebrations ever conceived (but typical of the 1980s), with black tie and evening gowns, and dozens of Maryland judges, politicians, Schaefer administration officials and even clergy sipping champagne and munching on grapes and quiche.

You can look it up.

In some countries, they mourn the need for more prisons. In this one, we pop open the Mumm.

There was dining and dancing, and your host for the evening was the very classy Bishop L. Robinson, former Baltimore police commissioner and then-secretary of public safety.

"Hope to see you at our `Big House' for a truly incarcerating evening," The Bishop wrote in his invitation to opening night at one of the most severe prisons of the modern age: 65-square-foot cells with concrete beds, 23-hour lockdown, no air conditioning, no fans, no work details.

There was a lot of glee over Supermax, built at a cost of $21 million in the mid-1980s to house the "worst of the worst" of Maryland prisoners. "It's a godsend," declared the warden of the overcrowded and dilapidated Maryland Penitentiary across the street.

Though there were protests at the time -- from the diminishing chorus of Marylanders who believed the Division of Correction should be about "correction" and not just punishment -- the clearest sound made at Supermax's premiere was that of champagne flutes clinking.

The place opened in the midst of the war on drugs. That war, along with new federal laws and sentencing guidelines, contributed to the stunning escalation in prison populations across the continent.

With more than 2 million men, women and children in prisons and jails, the United States has overtaken Russia as the nation with the highest percentage of its citizens behind bars.

Supermax symbolizes the American political appetite for more incarceration -- and more severe punishment -- instead of drug treatment, counseling and other progressive services for the prison population.

Then, out of nowhere, comes this:

"We do hope to get rid of Supermax. It does not serve our purpose programmatically or any other way."

That was not some bleeding-heart reformer speaking, but a woman with 38 years of experience in criminal justice, many of them as a prosecutor with a reputation for toughness made legend in 1979 when she fired her .38-caliber Smith & Wesson at three would-be robbers on a street in downtown Baltimore.

It's what Mary Ann Saar, the death-penalty-supporting state corrections secretary, told her boss, the governor, and other state officials Wednesday in Annapolis.

Supermax is obsolete, Saar said, because inmates are in confinement for 23 hours a day and the building has no space for counseling, drug treatment or education.

Those are all services key to helping inmates return to their communities. "We have to change criminals' thinking," Saar said.

Counseling? Drug treatment? Changing criminals' thinking?

Who knew our corrections secretary was interested in correcting? Who knew any state corrections secretary anywhere viewed that job as anything but warehouse boss?

On Friday, Saar said she regarded Supermax as misguided in form and function from the day it opened. She was a criminal justice adviser to then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer at the time, but her view of Supermax did not make a difference. The building opened in 1989, pushed by politicians as an austere answer to crime, and celebrated by Robinson at that black-tie party, which Saar did not attend.

"It's one of those things," Robinson said the other day, acknowledging Supermax's obsolescence. "We were following the trend at the time to incarcerate the most difficult prisoners in a very secure and difficult environment."

But that serves no long-term good, Saar said.

"There's no opportunity for inmates there to work their way out of [Supermax]," she said. "There is zero program space. ... The general feeling at the time [the facility opened] was that this was good corrections practice. But it doesn't serve any positive outcome."

Twenty-four thousand men, women and children are in the keeping of the Maryland Division of Correction. Only one-tenth of them are serving life sentences. All others are serving shorter sentences, and they'll come out of prison one day. Even some of the lifers might eventually win parole. We have a corrections secretary who actually thinks they should come out better people than they went in -- and that we can't punish them into being good.

"We are paying more and more to keep people in prison, and we are still subject to the same threats of crime," Saar said, "and that's not the world I want to live in."

Good. Let's raise a glass to that, then raze Supermax.

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