`This is the end of the line here'

High-tech prison is designed to house worst of Maryland's worst offenders

December 03, 2007|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,Sun reporter

Cresaptown -- Amid the scenic mountains of Western Maryland looms a forbidding fortress of a prison designed with one goal in mind - keeping the state's most violent and disruptive criminals inside, and under complete control.

North Branch Correctional Institution, a state-of-the-art maximum-security prison just south of Cumberland, has been opening in phases since 2003 and will double in size to hold up to 1,400 inmates when two more housing units open next year.

The high-tech prison - which will cost $171 million when completed - is taking inmates from aging facilities such as the House of Correction in Jessup, which was shut down in March after months of relentless violence. North Branch features the latest in correctional security devices as well as a "special-management unit" where the most incorrigible offenders spend weeks in what is essentially solitary confinement.

"This is the end of the line here," said Warden John A. Rowley, who manages the huge prison. "Our mission is to deal with the most problematic inmates. We have a great deal of control."

Security features include nearly 500 digital video cameras that monitor every part of the prison where inmates have access. Electronic sensors detect any suspicious movement and display the location on control-tower computer screens. Should a fight erupt in a dining hall or housing corridor, correctional officers can shoot tear gas through special ports in the walls to regain control.

Cells are made of super-strength concrete poured into casting molds, leaving no seams or cracks that could be gouged out to provide hiding places for weapons or drugs. The living space for up to 23 hours a day measures just over 60 square feet, about the size of a large walk-in closet. The walls are covered with graffiti-resistant epoxy paint.

From their seats in control rooms, correctional officers can push a button to stop the flow of water into a cell's stainless-steel sinks and toilets to prevent vandalism. Push a different button, and officers can activate speakers to talk to a prisoner in his cell.

North Branch, which derives its name from the branch of the Potomac River that flows behind the prison, was built adjacent to the Western Correctional Institution. The prison complex is now Allegany County's third-largest employer.

The new prison is "meant to last 60 years or more," said assistant corrections secretary David N. Bezanson, who oversees prison construction projects. He and Rowley offered a reporter a behind-the-scenes look at North Branch.

It is a far cry from the aging facilities that Maryland has relied on to house thousands of maximum-security inmates. The House of Correction, for example, was a scene of repeated violence - including the killings last year of a correctional officer and three inmates. The nearly 130-year-old prison lacked the highly secured cells, dozens of cameras and clear sight lines that allow officers at North Branch to see potential threats.

One of the two units that has opened at North Branch houses inmates who corrections officials say are the worst of the worst - active gang members and violent prisoners with a reputation for causing disruptions. Inmates in the special-management unit are confined largely to their cells while they go through a 13-month "quality of life" program that is meant to get them to change their way of thinking.

They are moved in handcuffs and leg shackles at all times, accompanied by staff. When they participate in group education and counseling, they do so from individual cages that resemble barred telephone booths.

Inmates assigned to this unit are allowed almost no privileges during their first few weeks. They can't buy anything from the commissary; they are allowed only one day of recreation and two showers per week; and they are not permitted outside visitors. No TV. No radios. No video games. And no phone calls.

As they advance through the program - participating in anger-management classes and other self-improvement exercises - the restrictions are gradually eased. The key is that they have to earn privileges by demonstrating self-control and improving their behavior, said James K. Holwager, the prison's chief psychologist.

"It is pretty bleak ... but it is for the safety of everyone," Holwager said.

The harshness troubles some inmate advocates, who contend that behavior management programs should be voluntary or they will have little effect.

"If somebody is forced to do this so they can get a Walkman, they are going to do it," said Kimberly Haven of Justice Maryland. "But are they really getting everything they can out of it, or are they just doing it to manipulate the system?"

Robert T. Goble, with a South Carolina-based corrections consulting firm, said isolating inmates for prolonged periods is not a good practice. What is needed, he said, are more educational and work-training programs to keep inmates engaged and prepare them for eventual release.

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