Problem prison to close today

House of Correction ends 128-year run

March 19, 2007|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,sun reporter

The Maryland House of Correction in Jessup will be officially shuttered today, a move that is long overdue, according to those familiar with the decrepit and dangerous 128-year- old maximum-security prison.

The prison was expected to be cleared of inmates by 10:15 a.m., when Gov. Martin O'Malley plans to announce the closure at a news conference at the facility, according to an O'Malley spokesman.

The sudden shutdown, spurred by the stabbing of a guard March 2, wound down over the weekend as the last few dozen inmates were moved to other state and federal prisons, according to prison officials.

The prison's hospital, which sees patients from other Jessup correctional facilities, will remain open, but most of the officers will be reassigned to other facilities, officials said.

The closure came as welcome news to William W. Sondervan, who ran Maryland's prisons from 1999 to 2003.

"It's old, it's obsolete and it's dangerous," Sondervan said of the House of Correction, where a correctional officer and three inmates were stabbed to death last year.

"We wanted to close it going back a while," Sondervan said. "But there was nowhere else to put the inmates."

He said inmate violence at the prison has become markedly worse in recent years. "Things kind of fell apart," Sondervan said.

The stabbing of a guard earlier this month was the final straw for Gary D. Maynard, who took over in January as Maryland's secretary of public safety and correctional services.

The officer, Edouardo F. Edouazin, 28, was returning an inmate to his cell when another inmate stabbed him with a homemade knife.

Maynard scrapped plans to convert the sprawling prison into a minimum-security facility and submitted a plan to O'Malley for shutting it down.

Over the past two weeks, inmates were transported in vans and buses to other prisons, according to prison officials. They said most inmates were sent to other facilities in Maryland, but 97 of the "most disruptive" were sent to federal prisons across the country or state prisons in Kentucky and Virginia.

Prison officials said efforts were made to notify the inmates' families of the closure. "They have either been notified or the notice is on the way," said Mark Vernarelli, a Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman.

Kimberly Haven, executive director of Justice Maryland, an inmate advocacy group, said she was concerned that moving prisoners would disrupt family communication and visits.

"I suspect we will hear from family members this week," she said. "People will call us to find out if we know where their father or brother or son is."

Barbara Bell of Lakeland, Fla., said she believes the closing of the prison led to her son being moved from Maryland's Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland.

She said her son called her Friday and said he had been transferred to a federal prison in Massachusetts. "He didn't know he was going to be moved," Bell said. "We don't know if it's permanent or if it's temporary."

She said her son was sentenced to 20 years for sexual assault. She asked that his name be withheld to ensure his safety.

Vernarelli said he could not confirm yesterday why Bell's son had been moved but added that it is not uncommon for an inmate to be moved to another prison. "It seems like a coincidence, but it could have been completely unrelated," he said.

Union officials welcomed news that the prison's closure would be completed today.

"I worked there myself from '79 to '88, and the place was antiquated then," said Bernard W. Ralph Jr., president of the Jessup chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"It's really unfortunate that it took what it did to get this place closed - the death of a correctional officer and numerous assaults," he said. "We've complained for years about lack of training and staffing."

Prison officials have assured him, Ralph said, that officers working at the House of Correction will be reassigned to local facilities near Jessup.

Not everyone, however, had bad memories of the 128-year- old facility.

Mary C. Hipkins, 85, of Frederick visited the prison grounds in the 1930s, when her mother's cousin, Thomas Rudkin, was the superintendent. She was about 10 years old at the time.

She would play outside the prison and tour the inside with Rudkin. "He would take us everywhere we had to go inside," she recalled. "But we were always locked in."

She remembers a prison in good repair.

"The prisoners raised all of their vegetables in a big garden," she said. "It seemed like a very nice building, but that was a long time ago."

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