Emptying the Maryland House of Correction eases community safety concerns and prosecution costs

Prison closing is a relief

March 21, 2007|By ANDREA F. SIEGEL and SUSAN GVOZDAS

Fear of escapes, the threat of violence to paramedics and the courthouse caseload of slayings and cellblock brawls - all have been eased by this week's closure of the Maryland House of Correction.

Tim Reyburn, president of the West County Federation, said he felt a sense of relief in the community. "It's just a stressor that's not here anymore," he said. "People don't have to worry."

Battalion Chief Michael Cox, an Anne Arundel County Fire Department spokesman, predicted two to three fewer calls a week to the state prison complex in Jessup. Safety always was a concern for emergency responders.

But few people may be more thrilled than State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee.

He said the Jessup prisons account for an average of two homicides and more than six dozen felonies a year, Weathersbee said. That translates into a county-paid prosecutor's work for a year, he said. The absence of the House of Correction, scene of the most prison bedlam in recent years, should ease the workload.

"It's a good thing. It will be beneficial to the taxpayers of Anne Arundel County - a lot of cases that we prosecute come from The Cut," he said, referring to the House of Correction by its nickname.

During the past two weeks, the state quietly transferred all 842 maximum-security inmates to federal prisons and state facilities as far as Kentucky. The last of them were cleared out by 7 p.m. Sunday.

Other prison facilities on the site remain operational: the maximum-security Jessup Correctional Institution, formerly known as the Annex; the Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup; the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women; the medium-security Brockbridge Correctional Facility; the Jessup Pre-Release Unit; and Herman L. Toulson Boot Camp.

Less than a mile to the north, just over the Howard County line, is the Patuxent Institution, the sole Maryland facility to offer rehabilitation to offenders.

Gary D. Maynard, who in January was named Maryland secretary of public safety and correctional services, initially planned to turn the Maryland House of Correction into a minimum-security prison. He abandoned that idea and starting working on shutting it down after a corrections officer was stabbed March 2.

Edouardo F. Edouazin was taking a prisoner back to his cell when another inmate attacked him with a homemade knife. In the past year, a correctional officer and three inmates have been killed at the sprawling prison. Cries to close the 128-year-old prison go back a generation, but Gov. Martin O'Malley's decision - and the stealth with which it was carried out - was unexpected.

Daryl Jones, an attorney who represents the area on the County Council, learned the prison was closing only when he went there to visit a client Saturday and was greeted with a "no visitors" sign. A guard filled him on the details.

"I was shocked," he said.

The future of the prison building is uncertain. Jacqueline Lampell, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correction, said yesterday that the officials there had previously proposed demolishing the prison in 2010.

Its main gate sits across from Jessup Elementary School, and prison officials always notified the school system when there was an escape or a problem, said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for the county school system. Although school officials did not live in fear of the Jessup institutions, problems at the House of Correction did cause concern, he said.

"Obviously, it's a weight off of everybody's shoulders that there's not a threat of any escapes there," Mosier said.

Cox, of the Fire Department, said after the killing of a prison guard last summer, prison officials changed the protocol for emergency medical calls. Instead of reporting to the infirmary, paramedics reported to an entrance where they could pick up an inmate, Cox said. More than 90 percent of the 146 emergency calls to the prison last year were for medical emergencies.

The cases resulting from the violence at the state prison complex so drain Weathersbee's office - for example, accounting for 15 percent of the homicides in a two-year period - that in 2000, Weathersbee refused to prosecute any more felonies that occurred behind state prison walls unless the state helped to pay for the work.

The last straw for Weathersbee had been a murder case from the Annex that cost $14,000 in cash outlay and three years of staff work time, which Weathersbee said brought the total to several hundred thousand dollars.

A year after the pleas and 1999 sentencings of two prisoners, his office was still involved in relocating some of the potential prisoner witnesses to other facilities. Within the year he received about $60,000 from the state to offset the hiring of a prosecutor, and the county has since picked up the tab.

He said the closing of what he called the "most despicable" facility in the state prison complex in Jessup is worth the potential inconvenience of defendants and prisoner witnesses being relocated.

But given the remaining maximum- and medium-security facilities, it hardly spells an end to cases arising from the remaining Jessup prisons.

"It's not like we will be out of business by them closing The Cut," he said.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

Andrea F. Siegel writes for The Sun. Susan Gvozdas is a freelance writer.

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