Prison's end detailed

Bus routes, distribution of plans quietly plotted

March 25, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun Reporter

Just two days remained before the covert operation to close the notorious Maryland House of Correction in Jessup would be completed.

State officials had planned for everything, it seemed, everything, but this: lousy weather.

The call came in about 1 p.m. to the conference room-turned command center, a bland room in Reisterstown Plaza, where dry-erase boards plotted out strategies ranging from bus routes and bed space to restroom breaks for shackled prisoners traveling long distances.

New Jersey state police were reporting weather forecasts of icy conditions. The bus of maximum-security inmates - some of Maryland's most hardened and violent prisoners - had to be on the New Jersey Turnpike in a few hours.

Assistant Commissioner James V. Peguese hung up the phone and shared the news with other top officials. Acting Commissioner of Corrections John A. Rowley quickly called Gary D. Maynard, the state's secretary of public safety and correctional services.

Everyone had to move quickly.

It was March 15, and the state was just two days away from ending a highly coordinated and intricate operation to close the antiquated Maryland prison in less than two weeks, emptying it of more than 800 inmates in almost complete secrecy. The plan involved a huge reshuffling with 1,500 moves, affecting nearly all the state's institutions, and ultimately sending 97 of Maryland's most violent prisoners out of state.

"We had been doing this for almost two weeks and been successful at keeping it confidential and with no one getting hurt," said Rowley. "We were concerned that if we didn't make the move, then we didn't know how bad the snow would be, whether the turnpike would be closed a few days. That would have caused a problem. These were the last transfers out of state."

The inmates were headed through New Jersey to the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Fort Devens, Mass., where they were then to be dispersed to federal prisons across the country.

In the end, bad weather was just about the only thing public safety and correctional officials hadn't planned for.

"It was very stressful," recalled Assistant Commissioner J. Michael Stouffer. "There was a lot to do. Everything had to go to plan or everything would go awry."

Assistant Commissioner Wendell France, also in the command center, said the central transportation unit had been "laid down," ready to activate at midnight on March 16.

"It would be a tremendous security problem to have that number of maximum-security inmates on the highway stranded," said France. "We couldn't keep them in Supermax. We would have had to find another place."

New Jersey agreed to extend the deadline to get to the turnpike to 7 p.m. By 5 p.m. on March 15, the units were mobilized. They rushed to the Supermax in Baltimore, where the inmates - some from the House of Correction, others from other institutions - had been grouped.

With the help of local and state police escorts, they were on the New Jersey Turnpike by 7 p.m.

Crisis averted - an apparent early success for Maynard, the newly appointed head of Maryland's troubled prison system.

Expecting the worst

Maynard, 63, had read about the prison in Jessup, nicknamed "The Cut," before coming to Maryland from Iowa's system. He was familiar with its long history of violence and corruption - in the past year, one correctional officer and three inmates have been killed.

So he knew to expect the worst when he walked into the imposing brick complex in Jessup on Feb. 6.

The 128-year-old prison was in appalling condition, he said.

"I saw the age of the facility and some of the blind corners," said Maynard. "The most disturbing thing was probably the catwalks in front of the cells. It was obvious that if an officer was walking and there was some kind of problem ... they were within the reach of the inmates.

"I could see why it was a place of violence."

Several weeks after his visit, at a meeting with Gov. Martin O'Malley regarding a government performance management system, Maynard brought along a presentation demonstrating the prison's poor conditions.

He argued that the prison could be converted from maximum to minimum security in 30 days, rather than the proposed three-year plan.

O'Malley recalls that Maynard also raised the idea of closing the prison permanently, a recommendation from his transition team. A timetable was not discussed, but O'Malley said he gave Maynard the green light to start planning.

"My instructions to him were to go ahead and close it as soon as he can, without compromising safety," said O'Malley. "I didn't hold him to a firm, hard deadline. I didn't want to do anything, even inadvertently, to cause them to compromise safety just to meet some sort of imposed deadline."

On March 2, an inmate in the House of Correction repeatedly stabbed correctional officer Edouardo F. Edouazin, 28, with a homemade knife.

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