As prison closes, Md. commences moving on

March 20, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

The prison cells, stacked four stories high, were empty. Stripped down to bed frames, toilets, sinks and lockers, all that remained was that unmistakable prison scent of disinfectant and sweat. The narrow catwalks, which put guards at arms', and thus danger's, reach of the cells, were finally safe.

Emptied out in secret and under high security, the 128-year-old House of Correction in Jessup was finally history, and Gov. Martin O'Malley, his new prisons chief, Gary D. Maynard, and other state officials took a victory lap yesterday through the ghostly vacant facility. There were speeches, an inverse of the more common key-to-the-city ceremony -- what are you supposed to do with a key to a shuttered facility? -- and picture-taking all around.

It was "a huge operational challenge," O'Malley said as he and Maynard spoke of how more than 800 inmates were spirited away over the past two weeks, vanload by vanload, under heavy guard and with neither the inmates nor the wardens of their new prisons told the reason for the transfer.

"It was not easy," Maynard agreed.

But maybe someday, Maynard might look back and see that dispersing inmates to other facilities and sending 97 of the "most disruptive" ones out-of-state was one of his easier challenges. Not to dismiss the success of transferring so many bad guys -- each van or bus got 12 specially trained guards, followed by four carloads of backup help -- but it's only the first step in fixing the troubled and strained prison system that Maynard inherited only two months ago.

For one thing, those bad guys will be back, with many headed to the newly expanded maximum-security North Branch Correctional Institute in Cumberland. Too bad you can't just outsource the housing of some of the state's worst criminals permanently.

But closing the House of Correction, which had become increasingly violent in recent years, is a big step -- and one that Maynard says will have ripple effects throughout the prison system.

Correctional officers and their union representatives have long complained of dangerously low staffing levels. And, indeed, the fact that state officials could close down the House of Correction without any of its 438 employees losing their jobs -- they will be transferred to other facilities -- speaks volumes about how low staffing levels had been allowed to dwindle.

"Just in Jessup alone," Maynard said, referring to the other Division of Correction facilities that remain open, "there were 165 vacancies."

Advocates have long sought to rectify the shortages, citing a direct link: When staffing is cut, inmate assaults increase, as a legislative analysis found last year.

At the House of Correction alone, three inmates and a correctional officer were killed last summer. Then, this month, another correctional officer was stabbed in an incident that prompted Maynard to call for the facility, which was initially going to be converted into a minimum-security prison, to be shut down entirely. The facility, Maynard said, had reached a point where no amount of money thrown at it was going to fix its many problems.

Maynard said raises approved for correctional officers will help with recruiting, as will the fact that the state has closed what has been one of its most dangerous facilities. "It's hard to recruit because of the fear," he said.

The correctional officers on hand for yesterday's official closing applauded often when the state officials tipped their hats to their efforts over the years in the increasingly dangerous facility.

"We still managed to run the place," said Sgt. Richard Knight, an 18-year veteran of the corrections force. "We did the job without fanfare."

While adequate staffing and safety are the most critical issues, they won't solve every problem. Maynard's predecessor, Mary Ann Saar, was often criticized for pushing for educational and job training programs for inmates as a way of helping them go straight once they're released, rather than ending up in the revolving door that brings them back into prison. That's always been a harder sell than increasing the number of guards or building new prisons, but it doesn't have to be an either-or matter -- studies have shown keeping inmates busy also cuts down on violence in prison.

For now, though, the friends of the slain guard, David McGuinn, will take the closing of the prison he died in as a victory.

"I am elated," declared William Marsh, a friend of the officer and his family. "It seems like there was no way to protect the guards there.

"I just wish it happened earlier," said Marsh, who is the City Council president in Atlantic City, N.J., where McGuinn was raised and where several family members still live. "But it's never too late to save someone else from going through this."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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