Senators denounce proposals for prison

Dundalk, Pr. George's among sites considered for federal penal facility

November 20, 2003|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Reacting angrily to a proposal to build a federal maximum-security prison in eastern Baltimore County, Maryland's two U.S. senators have told Attorney General John Ashcroft they are "adamantly opposed" to such a facility there, or anywhere else in the state.

Dundalk is one of four Maryland sites being reviewed by the Justice Department for a 1,750-bed prison. But Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes wrote to Ashcroft demanding that all four sites "be immediately withdrawn from consideration."

"We are especially troubled that these objectionable and ill-conceived plans were hidden from the local jurisdictions until recently," the lawmakers wrote this week in a letter released yesterday. Along with Dundalk, three locations in Prince George's County were named as potential prison sites by private companies seeking to build and operate the facilities.

Also weighing in against the Dundalk proposal was Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the former Baltimore County executive, who vowed in a letter to Ashcroft to "use all my resources and power to stop this facility from moving forward."

Jorge Martinez, a spokesman in the attorney general's office, said the Justice Department will review the letters and "incorporate their views in the decision-making process in this particular case."

Yesterday, The Sun reported that federal officials are considering a proposal to build a privately run prison near Turners Station, a historic black community, and on a site that is at the center of an ambitious waterfront redevelopment project.

Input from the community and local officials will be heard in January, a Justice Department spokesman has said.

Correctional Services Corp. of Sarasota, Fla., has proposed the Dundalk facility, an idea that is under review by the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee. Company officials would not comment yesterday.

Two other private corrections companies have offered plans for federal prisons in the communities of Brandywine, East Gate and Cheltenham in Prince George's County.

Federal law enforcement officials and judges in Baltimore have long complained about the lack of a federal facility to hold pretrial detainees and other prisoners in a centralized location. Many have been held at the state's Supermax prison in Baltimore or in jails on the Eastern Shore, such as one in Wicomico County that received federal funds to expand.

Such arrangements have made it difficult to transport prisoners and for attorneys to meet with their clients.

The Department of Homeland Security requested 500 beds for people suspected of violating immigration laws at the proposed Dundalk prison. The rest of the beds would be for pretrial detainees.

Community leaders in Dundalk were surprised by the news of the proposed prison. But they seemed determined yesterday to fight the proposal, saying residents have shouldered more than their share of what they call dumping on Dundalk.

In recent decades, the former blue-collar bastions of Dundalk, Essex and Middle River have been bombarded with projects considered undesirable in other communities. The short list includes the dumping of dredging spoils on Hart-Miller Island and the construction of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Last fall, the state proposed dumping more spoils dredged from area shipping channels onto Sollers Point - the site where federal officials are considering building the prison. Strong community protests defeated the dumping plan.

Yesterday, several community leaders gathered outside the chain-link and barbed-wire fence that leads to the 101-acre property owned by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and considered by federal prison officials.

The entrance to Breckinridge Drive, the road off Broening Highway that leads to the property, has no street sign. Alongside the road, a soggy mattress lay near empty beer cans and other garbage and the drone and clank of passing tractor-trailers served as a noisy backdrop.

"We have taken so much for a small community," said Muriel L. Gray, president of the Turners Station Development Corp. "An entire section of Turners is still without power or water after the flood from [Tropical Storm] Isabel.

"This prison idea is crazy," said Gray, who has lived in the community all her 60 years. "Here we are attempting revitalization and now they throw a prison at us. That is not the answer to a group of citizens trying to rise up to a new beginning."

In their letter, Mikulski and Sarbanes raised other concerns about privatized prisons, a new growth industry after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"Previously, such arrangements have often signaled a sweetheart deal that comes at the expense of the community and taxpayer," the senators wrote. "In a post-Sept. 11 world, privatizing a facility that may house dangerous terrorists is irresponsible.

"Private businesses are focused primarily on the bottom line, rather than the safety and well being of the surrounding communities," they wrote.

Two years ago, a team of designers, engineers and architects visited Dundalk and developed a vision for the area that would capitalize on its industrial history with new homes, marina parks and other improvements.

Even the suggestion of building a prison in the area could jeopardize that positive blueprint, Ruppersberger said.

Pointing to more than $130 million invested in the east-side revitalization, Ruppersberger said the prison "may have already deterred investment and cast doubt on whether families will move into this area."

Sun staff writer Gail Gibson contributed to this article.

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