Supermax send-off

October 23, 2003

BUT FOR the Houdini-like escape by the infamous Harold B. Dean, the windows at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore permit little more than light and air to pass through them. Not much bigger than an 8-by-14-inch photograph, they are barred, cut into the walls above eye level and offer no view beyond air and sky.

As a point of reference, however, they serve as a visual reminder of the 23-hour-a-day lockdown of inmates there, the prison's claustrophobic layout and its inability to provide anything more than the bare essentials to prisoners -- all reasons why the state wants to close it. We say to Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar, shut it down.

Known as Supermax, the prison opened with champagne toasts and a black-tie ball in 1989 to house the "worst of the worst" in Maryland prisons. It soon became the subject of a federal civil rights investigation over alleged abuses that occurred in a windowless, solitary confinement cell dubbed "the pink room." It certainly housed its share of Maryland's worst inmates, but Ms. Saar offered a refreshingly candid assessment of the fortress-like prison and its population this week: As "bad" as the inmates may be, "we are civilized people and we need to treat human beings humanely."

Here is the other reality for the state: The average sentence of the estimated 244 inmates in Supermax is 320 months, or more than 26 years. A sizable portion of those prisoners will eventually be released, many sooner than 26 years. And the prison in East Baltimore affords almost no opportunity for inmates to get an education, improve their behavior or treat their addictions. That means the "worst of the worst" are returning to Maryland streets not much different than they left -- a scary prospect that can only result in more crime and more ruined lives.

The corrections system will still have its share of bad actors, disciplinary problems and other troublesome inmates. Ms. Saar proposes to transfer them to a wing of the North Branch Correctional Institution, a new prison in Western Maryland where the staff can more properly manage them and help those willing to help themselves.

The key then will be to ensure that the inmates get services when they no longer prove a security risk. Not all will accept; they can remain locked in their cells. Any savings recouped from closing Supermax -- the $40,000 cost of housing a prisoner there is double the average annual cost -- should be plowed into programming.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has supported Ms. Saar's approach to corrections -- simply warehousing prisoners is not sound corrections policy. Neither the secretary nor the governor is soft-hearted when it comes to convicted murderers and lifers. But they know the value of investing wisely. As for the fate of the hulking Supermax building, Ms. Saar would like to demolish it. If she and others can find no better use for the facility in the correctional complex in East Baltimore, then bring on the wrecking ball.

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