State to spend $7 million on security in prisons

September 02, 2006|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,sun reporter

State corrections officials said yesterday that they will spend $7 million to buy surveillance cameras, radios, protective vests and other security equipment to make Maryland's prisons safer -- a move that the O'Malley campaign described as a "completely transparent" effort by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to win votes from correctional officers unhappy with the administration.

The announcement came a day before Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley was to travel to Hagerstown to receive the endorsement of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92, a union that represents many correctional officers.

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley's campaign, called the timing of the prison announcement "politically motivated," but he predicted that Ehrlich won't win back the support of correctional officers who voted for him in the last election.

"These funds are not simply a day late and a dollar short, they are about four years late," Abbruzzese said.

The announcement that more money is being made available for security enhancements was made during a news conference at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, a medium security prison that is adjacent to the violence-ridden Maryland House of Correction.

John A. Rowley, the new state prisons chief, said he met with wardens and staff and drew up requests for what was most needed to operate the state's prisons more safely. He said Ehrlich "gave us everything we asked for" in the initial package of requests.

"We have to get this division a safe place to work, and we have to restore pride in being a member of this division," Rowley said.

The list of items to be funded includes $2.1 million for additional surveillance cameras at the House of Correction, Patuxent Institution and the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center and $1 million to expand intelligence-gathering operations in prisons across the state.

Another $2.1 million is for sophisticated walk-through scanners that staff and visitors must pass through, X-ray conveyors to examine packages, stab-proof vests, radio equipment and similar items. Transport and security vehicles that are 10 years old or have more than 100,000 miles on them are to be replaced at a cost of about $2 million, officials said.

The department also is setting up a hot line that prison staff members can call to report threats that they might receive or other security problems directly to top officials without going through managers at their institutions.

One of the three institutions getting the new surveillance cameras, the House of Correction, is where Correctional Officer David McGuinn was stabbed to death by two inmates who authorities say jammed or picked the locks of their cell doors at the maximum security prison.

The death of McGuinn, the second officer to be killed while on duty this year amid a string of violence that included three inmate killings, led to the abrupt retirement last week of prisons Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr.

In an interview yesterday, Sizer said that many of the items are things he had requested money for in the past, but none was available in the budget.

He said he surveyed the need for additional surveillance cameras several months ago and that his department had complained for the past three years about the need to replace worn out vans and buses used to transport inmates and security vehicles used for patrols.

"I would have happily accepted that," Sizer said of the resources now being poured into the corrections system.

But he said buying new equipment isn't the real key to operating a safer prison system.

"We will not solve the problem until we do something that involves programming [for inmates] and we have a better trained staff with better supervision," Sizer said. "Buying all this equipment is equivalent to giving a kid a toy to pacify him."

Ron Bailey, executive director of AFSCME Council 92, said the union welcomes "with open arms" any additional resources but questions why the money is so late in coming.

"It just seems so convenient that now they are getting ready for the election, all of a sudden all this money pops out," Bailey said. "This is strictly politics, all about publicity."

The administration is, in effect, charging the costs of the security enhancements to next year's budget. The General Assembly will be asked next year to approve the spending.

Such requests are routinely approved.

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