House of Correction, RIP

March 20, 2007

The Maryland House of Correction was our Alcatraz - a decrepit, infamous and dangerous fortress. The federal government had the good sense to close the Rock in San Francisco Bay in 1963. It took the state of Maryland considerably longer, but, as of yesterday, the Jessup prison housed its last inmate. The new public safety chief, Gary D. Maynard, orchestrated the unthinkable - shutting down the troublesome prison in a few weeks without compromising the safety and security of staff and inmates or overloading the system. That's some opening act.

It took a decisive leader to make the tough call after a recent stabbing of a correctional officer, but more to the point, a resourceful facilitator who could plot the transfer of 842 inmates - including negotiating with prisons outside Maryland to take 97 of its most incorrigible inmates - and move the bureaucracy to action. Before this, the talk had been to plan for the closing over three years.

And while Mr. Maynard deserves the credit for persuading his boss, Gov. Martin O'Malley, to take on this potentially risky venture, other factors played into the decision - the state's declining prison population (down from 23,656 two years ago to 22,487 yesterday), correctional officer vacancies in the system and a new prison wing opening in Hagerstown in July. It also didn't hurt that Mr. Maynard serves as president of the American Correctional Association; he knows a lot of people in the prison business.

From initial accounts, the shutdown may save the state prison system money. Safety issues at the House of Correction had made staffing the place problematic, requiring corrections officers to work double shifts. From July 2006 through Feb. 21 of this year, the state spent $2.9 million just in overtime at the Jessup prison. State officials say it will cost about $276,000 to house 37 prisoners in Kentucky and Virginia through July, at per diem rates less than Maryland's.

Overall, the transfer of the majority of House of Correction inmates to other Maryland prisons means the system will have fewer empty cells. It should mean a tighter ship, and less overtime to keep it afloat.

The union representing corrections officers, who had long complained about safety at the House of Correction, applauded Mr. Maynard's bold move.

An antiquated prison with a long history of security concerns has been shuttered, and the state's new public safety chief has shown he's ready to take on the system's most challenging concerns and act swiftly to resolve them.

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