Clean up `The Cut'

July 28, 2006

When three inmates at the state's maximum-security House of Correction manage to foil a prison lockdown to murder a correctional officer, the Jessup prison has gone beyond troubled. It's in full crisis.

Officer David McGuinn was killed hours after state prison officials announced the appointment of a new warden at "The Cut," the prison's nickname. But changing a warden won't secure this prison. It's understaffed and ill-suited to an increasingly violent population; without a major state commitment, the warden won't be able to reform the prison culture there.

Officer McGuinn, 41, wasn't stabbed to death while breaking up a fight or subduing a fleeing felon. His murder was a targeted assassination. What's worse, shockingly so, is that prison officials had been warned of a possible attack on an officer. And still prisoners pulled it off.

New Warden Wendell M. "Pete" France, who last ran the prison reception center in Baltimore, will have to contend with the fallout from Officer McGuinn's murder, a shortage of 47 corrections officers, ongoing investigations of three inmate homicides, and a prison stacked with murderers and lifers. Until two weeks ago, the prison had been without a security chief for five months.

Prison officials have begun transferring troublesome inmates to other prisons. But Mr. France should insist on a moratorium on new prisoners at least until he can fill prison guard vacancies with the first 15 graduates from the next officer training class.

Those are short-term fixes. The House of Correction, which dates to 1878, doesn't meet the housing needs of its hard-core inmates and offers no programming to constructively address their lengthy stays, which average about 10 years.

The state can't delay demolishing the prison any longer - it has been talked about for years - because it takes five years to build a maximum-security prison. Until then, prison officials should reduce the inmate-to-prison-guard ratio at the House of Correction and give priority to restoring its full complement of guards. But in a corrections system that is down 500 guards, securing one prison may come at the cost of another.

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