Empty cells at new jail

Five months after unveiling, Towson building not ready

review suggested

March 23, 2006|By JOSH MITCHELL | JOSH MITCHELL,SUN REPORTER

Five months after a public tour to unveil a new jail in Towson, no inmates have been transferred into the $77 million building - a delay that has prompted a Baltimore County lawmaker to ask for a review of the project's contracts.

County officials said the installation of the jail's electronic security system is taking longer than expected. Last spring, officials had hoped to transfer inmates into the facility by October. Yesterday, James P. O'Neill, director of the county Department of Corrections, said there is a "distinct possibility" that inmates could be transferred next month.

County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina called the delays "very unusual." He said he will ask County Auditor Brian J. Rowe to review the project's contracts and determine whether any firms have not fulfilled the terms of the deals.

"If we're paying the contractor and the contractor said that it would be ready to go in the fall, and we're now in the spring, that's a problem," said Gardina, a Perry Hall-Towson Democrat.

Gardina emphasized that he did not want officials to transfer inmates before the building is ready. "I'd rather them be sure of what they're doing prior to opening rather than them having a problem after prisoners are in there," Gardina said.

O'Neill said the situation is "not atypical" for jail and prison construction.

"I don't believe the citizens of Baltimore County would want us to move until we are certain to the greatest degree possible that the security system is accurate," he added.

An official with West Chester, Pa.-based Pinnacle Electronic Systems, which is installing the jail's security system, declined to comment, saying he had not obtained permission from his supervisor to speak to the news media. The firm is one of 17 contractors that worked on the project, according to O'Neill.

The glass-and-concrete building at Kenilworth Drive and Bosley Avenue, with 784 beds, 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.

The proposal was bitterly opposed by neighbors, who said it was forced upon them six years ago with little thought given to the effect it would have on their community.

Most of the money for the $77 million project was put up by the county, with the state contributing the rest.

The project was delayed from the start, when architectural drawings arrived late, and other delays have occurred since, according to county officials. By last spring, officials expected to open the building in October.

Much of the construction was done by then, and O'Neill gave tours to judges, elected officials and the news media, and invited the public in for a look at the 330,000-square-foot building. But the building wasn't complete, and officials said inmates would be transferred by the end of the year.

Now, the building's structure is complete, as is most of the electrical work, O'Neill said. The detention center's administrative offices moved in three weeks ago.

O'Neill said the security system will link the old building with the addition.

"There are about 1,200 functions" of the security system," he said, ranging from locking cells to opening main doors. "I think about 1,180 of those functions are fine. Until all 1,200 are tested and certified and retested and recertified again, we're not moving."

O'Neill said he is using the additional time caused by the delays to train correctional officers. Once the new building opens, the jail will move to "direct supervision," a model in which unarmed officers monitor inmates in the same room instead of from behind glass. Officials believe the model, used increasingly by jails nationwide, reduces inmate fights and tensions between officers and inmates.

The county detention center has about 20 vacancies for correctional officers, which O'Neill attributed to a healthy job market that attracts would-be officers to other careers. But he said the detention center has a big enough staff to open the new jail.

County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz said the focus should be on opening the jail, and that contracts could be looked at later.

"There may be certain issues to look at after the fact," said Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Ruxton Democrat, "but at this stage they need to get the thing done and opened and filled."

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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