Federal prison is proposed near historic Turners Station

Privately run facility seen as threat to revitalization

November 19, 2003|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

As eastern Baltimore County looks toward revitalization, federal officials are considering a proposal to build a privately run prison next to a historic black community and in the path of an ambitious waterfront project.

Correctional Services Corp. of Sarasota, Fla., has proposed the 1,750-bed prison just south of the Turners Station neighborhood in Dundalk, a U.S. Department of Justice spokesman confirmed yesterday.

News of the proposal has shaken the proud Dundalk area, once the heart of Maryland's steel and shipbuilding industries.

The community, hard-hit by Tropical Storm Isabel two months ago, is pursuing a long-term redevelopment plan to reverse years of decline marked by high unemployment and the loss of younger residents.

Before the project moves forward, community groups and local government leaders will be allowed to comment, with meetings beginning as early as January.

But many don't want to wait until then to make their feelings known.

"Clearly, the bureaucrats in Washington have no sense of the community they seek to impact," County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said yesterday through a spokesman.

Turners Station "is a historic community, and if the federal government wants to intervene in people's lives, they should lift them up, not cast them aside," he said.

Courtney Speed, a Turners Station community leader, said the 2,200 residents there "are totally opposed to this prison. We've been working hard to revitalize our community, one with a great heritage."

Officials at Correctional Services Corp.'s headquarters in Florida and Texas did not return telephone calls yesterday.

Meeting in D.C.

The proposal for a prison in the Baltimore-Washington area was discussed last week in Washington at the Office of Federal Detention Trustee, which oversees privately run prisons.

Among those present were representatives of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, and the executives of Prince George's and Baltimore counties.

Three Prince George's sites were recommended by two other companies.

Although bids from private companies will be considered, the Justice Department said it will conduct a thorough study of what it considers the best locations and then will gather input from communities and officials.

"I can't comment on the internal process," said spokesman Jorge Martinez. "This is at an early stage, but we do need a facility in the Baltimore-Washington area."

The site being examined in Baltimore County is on the Sollers Point peninsula where the Patapsco River and Bear Creek converge. The 101-acre property, near the tollbooth for the Key Bridge, is owned by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

Nobody told BGE

A utility official expressed surprise yesterday at the proposal.

"BGE has owned the site for 30 years," said Scott Woodall, director of BGE's real estate holdings. "We have not been approached yet; any such plan is nonexistent to us."

According to those present at the meeting in Washington, the proposed facility would hold two types of prisoners. The larger group would be pretrial detainees who are now held in local jails and prisons until being transported to other federal facilities.

The other prisoners would be people suspected of violating federal immigration laws. The Homeland Security Department has asked for 500 beds to incarcerate those inmates.

Two years ago, an urban design team offered a vision for Dundalk that included new infrastructure linking the community with Baltimore City, a string of marinas and new residential villages along the 45-mile coastline.

A cornerstone of that plan is "Key Quay," which is planned for Sollers Point. The quay would feature a cruise ship terminal, hotels, a new sports arena, homes and a water link to the Inner Harbor.

`Just shocked'

"I am just shocked at this development," said Dick McJilton, president of the Dundalk Chamber of Commerce and a lifelong area resident. "Why do they insist on plopping these prisons in people's back yards?"

Stephanie Jameson, president of the Dundalk Renaissance Corp., which is heading the redevelopment effort, agreed. "There is no way this will come to pass if our voices are heard. ... This is not a favorable location for a prison."

Two other companies, Correction Corp. of America based in Nashville, Tenn., and Wackenhut Corrections Corp. in Boca Raton, Fla., have proposed three prison sites in Prince George's County. But the prisons won't be welcomed there either.

"We have been, and still are, opposed to building any new prison in Prince George's County," said Jim Keary, spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson.

Growth industry

Michael Hallett, director of the criminal justice program at the University of North Florida, has studied the privatization of America's prisons for seven years.

"Private prisons are a real growth area since 9/11," Hallett said. "But they are inefficiently run, and their correctional forces generally receive low pay and are poorly trained.

"The big spike for private prisons has been the arrests of people suspected of violating federal immigration laws," Hallett said. "Essentially, they have no due process, are confined indefinitely and help keep the prisons full."

Fight brewing

But McJilton, of the Dundalk Chamber of Commerce, said his community is not the place for such a facility.

"Just when you think you are making some headway in the community, the federal government comes along and wants to dump a prison here," he said.

"This time, I think they have a fight on their hands."

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