Finally, Md. shuts prison

O'Malley, new facility enable state to close Victorian-era building

March 20, 2007|By Andrew A. Green and Jennifer Skalka | Andrew A. Green and Jennifer Skalka,SUN REPORTERS

One visit to the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup in February and new Corrections Secretary Gary D. Maynard knew it shouldn't remain a maximum-security prison. But when a correctional officer was stabbed on March 2, Maynard concluded that the facility built in 1878 needed to be shut down immediately - and Gov. Martin O'Malley quickly agreed.

State prison officials have been complaining about the poor conditions, unsafe design and deteriorating structure of the House of Correction for at least 50 years. But through it all, the Maryland prison, which opened a half-century before Alcatraz, stayed open.

Until yesterday. After two attacks on correctional officers in 10 months, including the fatal stabbing of 41-year-old David McGuinn in July, O'Malley announced that the prison has been closed.

"For about 50 years we have talked about the need to close this functionally obsolete facility," O'Malley said yesterday, standing in the cavernous empty prison that he compared to something out of a James Cagney movie. "In about five weeks, we were actually able to close this functionally obsolete facility."

Those who have been asking for years why the Victorian-era institution was still open say it was the advent of new administration, the arrival of a new corrections secretary with a workable plan, the opening of a new prison in Western Maryland and a string of violent incidents that finally spurred the state to close the prison.

Its defects have long been known.

The House of Correction housed many inmates in tiered rows of cells that correctional officers could only patrol from narrow catwalks outside. Inmates could hear officers coming before the officers could see into the cells, prime conditions for an ambush, prison officials said.

Drugs, tobacco and other contraband flowed freely in a place where prisoners were hard to monitor, making it unruly and dangerous, officials said. The idea of closing the prison has been circulating in the state government since at least the 1950s.

But violence has escalated in recent years. Three inmates were killed last year at the House of Correction, and two other correctional officers suffered serious stab wounds after being attacked by three inmates in March 2006.

Bernard Ralph, a correctional officer, said it was "as bad as you could imagine."

"Staff came in here with a little bit of courage on one shoulder and a little bit of fear on the other shoulder," he said.

Advocates for correctional officers and inmates alike cheered the decision. They wondered what took the state so long.

"We would like to know the answer to that," said Kimberly Haven, executive director of Justice Maryland, a statewide criminal justice advocacy group. "It's been talked about for so long, it really has."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said the prison at Jessup was troubled for as long as he can remember. He said he can only imagine what Maynard - a veteran of several corrections departments in other states - thought when he got to Maryland and saw the House of Correction.

"The guy knows what he's doing," Busch said. "I can only imagine he took one look at that place and thought, `This is a disaster waiting to happen.'"

Maynard said he knew about Jessup before he came to Maryland and that it was the first prison he toured.

Corrections was the major topic of the first meeting of StateStat - a government performance management system that O'Malley is implementing - and Maynard brought with him a PowerPoint presentation showing poor conditions and safety hazards stemming from the prison's design. He asked O'Malley for approval to turn the facility into a minimum-security prison, and the governor said yes.

But when an inmate repeatedly stabbed correctional officer Edouardo F. Edouazin, 28, with a homemade knife March 2, Maynard concluded that the prison was unusable in any form, he said. The next day, he sat down with his acting commissioner of corrections, John A. Rowley, and top deputies to figure out how to move more than 800 inmates without them learning what was going on, a level of secrecy that he said was essential to maintaining security.

Rowley said it was a tremendous logistical challenge, especially given that many of the most dangerous prisoners were being transferred out of state. He said the whole operation almost fell apart March 12 when New Jersey, which had promised an escort for prisoners passing through on their way to a federal facility in Massachusetts, insisted that they clear the state by 7 p.m., instead of by the next morning.

Rowley said prison officials scrambled to get that group of inmates on buses and out of the state within hours rather than jeopardize the entire operation.

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