Violent prison shuts down

Public safety head moved to close Jessup's 128-year-old facility after March stabbing

Sun exclusive

March 18, 2007|By Josh Mitchell and Greg Garland | Josh Mitchell and Greg Garland,sun reporters

State officials have abruptly shut down the Maryland House of Correction, an antiquated and notorious maximum-security prison in Jessup where inmate violence had spiraled out of control and corruption had run rampant.

Prison administrators had planned to convert the 128-year-old prison - where a correctional officer and three inmates have been killed within the past year - to a minimum-security facility in coming months. But the state's top correctional official said yesterday that he began laying plans to close the prison within hours of the non-fatal March 2 stabbing of a correctional officer there.

"The House of Correction was one of the worst in terms of officer safety and efficiency of operation," said Gary D. Maynard, who took over in January as Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services. "You can't put enough officers here to make it safe."

The last few dozen of the 842 inmates who were there when Maynard put his plan in motion were scheduled to move out of the prison yesterday. Inside the prison's south wing, prisoners shuffled through the hallways yesterday afternoon carrying trash bags stuffed with their belongings, and guards wearing plastic gloves dragged mattresses down a stairway. They walked by empty jail cells.

Inmates were transferred in groups of 15 to 40 in vans and buses during daytime hours, said John A. Rowley, acting commissioner of the Division of Correction. Each operation was carried out in secrecy in the past two weeks to ensure security.

Most of the prisoners were sent to other facilities in Maryland, many to the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland. Officials said that 97 of the "most disruptive" inmates were moved to federal prisons across the country or to state facilities in Kentucky and Virginia.

The House of Correction's 438 employees will be transferred to other facilities in the region.

Union leaders have long complained about conditions at the antiquated prison, which opened in 1879. It was long known as a place where drugs, tobacco and other contraband flowed freely, earning the nickname "House of Corruption" among some veteran officers.

"It's been a dangerous prison for a long time for both inmates and staff," said Sue Esty, interim executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92.

A series of incidents at the prison made headlines in the past year.

Last summer, three prisoners were killed in inmate-on-inmate violence at the prison. In July, Officer David McGuinn, known as a "by the book" officer who strictly enforced the rules, was stabbed to death - allegedly by two inmates wielding homemade knives. Prison officials said the inmates had jammed open their cell doors, which had locks long known to be faulty.

Earlier this month, correctional officer Edouardo F. Edouazin, 28, was returning an inmate to his cell - unaccompanied by another officer - when a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder attacked him with a homemade knife, officials said. In addition, there have been dozens of stabbings and other inmate-on-inmate attacks over the years.

Maynard said that after that incident, he presented a plan to Gov. Martin O'Malley to close the prison.

Under his plan, about 60 prisoners were sent to federal prisons out of the state. In exchange, the state will accept an equal number of nonviolent female prisoners from federal facilities, a spokesman for O'Malley said.

Another 37 prisoners were sent to either Virginia or Kentucky under a program called Interstate Compact. Instead of receiving inmates from those states, Maryland will pay a monthly per diem for housing inmates from the House of Correction.

Maynard said that the expense of moving the inmates and reimbursing those states would be covered by the savings on overtime expenses for officers at the House of Correction and that the department would be able to cover the expenses in its current budget.

The public safety secretary said the move of House of Correction inmates to other state prisons would not overburden those facilities because the department had sufficient space at the other prisons to accommodate the influx.

O'Malley said yesterday that he had been considering closing the prison when Maynard presented the idea to him at a State Stat meeting two weeks ago. "As long as I can remember, people have been saying we should close the House of Correction," O'Malley said. "I'm very proud it's our first order of business really in cleaning up our prisons."

Kimberly Haven, executive director of Justice Maryland, which advocates for prisoner rights, said she knew the facility would eventually be closed and she understood the reasoning behind it. But she questioned the wisdom of potentially moving inmates farther away from their families.

"We know the role that families can play in how someone does their time," Haven said. "To move them out of state just fractures an already fragile bond."

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