New jail will adopt new supervision model

Baltimore County officials say plan to seat unarmed officers with inmates will reduce fights

October 15, 2005|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

At Baltimore County's new jail in Towson, each cellblock will be manned by an unarmed correctional officer sitting at a desk -- with 56 inmates roaming around him.

The "direct supervision" arrangement will be a radical change for correctional officers accustomed to monitoring inmates from behind glass. The idea is to reduce inmate fights.

"It normalizes the environment," said James P. O'Neill, director of the county Bureau of Corrections. "A lot of times, problems occur because horseplay gets out of control. This way the officer can make sure people aren't strong-arming use of the telephone or the television channel."

The $77 million detention center addition, whose construction is almost complete, will begin housing inmates in the coming weeks. County residents can get their first glimpse of the new jail today, with tours of the building at Kenilworth Drive and Bosley Avenue from 9 a.m. to noon.

The 784-bed facility, branched off of the old facility, is the county detention center's first major expansion since the old building opened in the 1980s, and it will nearly double the jail's capacity.

In the new building, officials will change the way they supervise inmates. The jail's officers have been trained to supervise inmates in the direct supervision model, and they have visited Anne Arundel County jails to observe the model there, O`Neill said.

Not all correctional officers have embraced the new policy. Seven or eight officers recently retired, with some saying they did not want to work directly with inmates, O'Neill said.

"What if the inmates want to come after that officer? If you're talking about 50 inmates, what chance does an officer have?" said Archer Blackwell, a senior staff representative with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents correctional officers.

But many jails have reduced violence with direct supervision, said Vicci Persons, correctional programs specialist for the National Institute of Corrections in Colorado, which advocates the model.

Officers are able to establish a relationship of authority with the inmates, who "know you don't have keys to let them out of the housing unit. They know that hurting you is not going to get them anything, it's just going to get them in trouble," she said.

Direct supervision was first implemented in the late 1970s by the Federal Bureau of Prisons at several of its facilities, she said. A 2001 survey by the institute showed that more than 300 jails had moved to the model, and that number is likely to rise to 400 this year, Persons said.

In recent years, the direct-supervision model has been implemented in jails in Sarasota County, Fla.; Aiken County, S.C.; and Minnehaha County, S.D. Locally, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties use direct supervision in their detention centers.

The new Towson jail will be big enough to have a separate area for the most violent inmates, who will not be under direct supervision, O'Neill said.

The 330,000-square-foot building will also have separate areas for taking in inmates and releasing them -- which officials say is important to reduce the risk of releasing the wrong inmate. The building will have air conditioning, something that the older facility lacks.

"You go in there to work in the summer, and you're soaked a half-hour into your shift," O'Neill said. "It gets hard to control inmates when it's 110 degrees in the cellblock. You have people get their jaws broken over watching a TV station."

This week, O'Neill gave tours of the new building to judges, elected officials and the news media. He took them down a large beige hallway lined with cellblocks -- large rooms with holding cells along three of the walls.

Each cell contains seven twin-size beds, two toilets, a shower and two white porcelain sinks that are turned on by sensors. Inmates will be locked in the cells from 11 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. The rest of the time they will be in the larger room. In the middle is a podium, where a correctional officer will sit at a desk.

The officer will supervise the inmates there as they play chess, watch television from two TV sets mounted on the wall or play basketball in an exercise room off to the side.

The cellblocks will be manned by people like Andrew Chiddick, a burly 6-foot-3-inch corporal who wears a blue correctional uniform and three rings full of keys on his waist.

"It's great because I can stop something before it escalates," Chiddick said. "It's better communication with inmates."

O'Neill said the officers who will work at the new jail have taken classes on how to deal directly with inmates and quell disputes before they turn violent.

If things get out of control, each officer will be able to push a panic button on a radio attached to his waist; within 90 seconds, officers armed with pepper spray will arrive for backup.

There will also be an officer taking footage with a video camera to document any incidents and to be used as evidence in case any inmates accuse officers of misconduct.

"The greatest deterrent is we film incidents," O'Neill said. "Cameras are the biggest deterrent going.

He also noted that the locks to the cellblocks will be controlled by officers in a secure room on a separate floor of the building.

"If they hold the officer hostage they're not going to get anywhere," O'Neill said.

O'Neill would not say exactly when inmates would be transferred to the new jail.

"We don't want them reading when they're moving," he said, "for obvious security reasons."

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

The community is invited to tour the expanded Baltimore County Detention Center, at Bosley and Kenilworth Avenues in Towson. The open house is scheduled for 9 a.m. to noon today.

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