County jails brimming full

Inmate population continues to grow, and council has rejected expansion

May 25, 2008|By Steven Stanek | Steven Stanek,Sun Reporter

Most of the inmates awaiting trial in Anne Arundel are crammed 20 at a time into dorm-like rooms designed for 14 people. Jail officials point to such conditions when they talk about the challenges of keeping pace with a growing inmate population.

The overcrowding has led to more jailhouse violence, say the officials, whose proposal for an expansion project was recently deleted from the county budget by lawmakers seeking to channel money to the school system.

The $2 million in design funding for 2009 would have begun a five-year, $53 million project to add 700 inmate beds at the county's two facilities. It was the largest of the new capital projects rejected by County Council members.

"Corrections isn't popular. Nobody likes putting money in jails and prisons," said Robin R. Harting, the jail administrator, who added that the overcrowding could create a threat to public safety. "This problem is not going to go away. The county needs adequate, safe and secure space to house people who are accused of and commit crimes in this county."

The 1960s-era dorms at the county's Jennifer Road facility house the majority of the pretrial inmates sent to the jail. Of the jail's 635 beds, 76 are in maximum-security cells and 40 are in a mental health wing. Harting said the jail routinely approaches its maximum occupancy.

The county's other jail, on Ordnance Road, the site of the proposed expansion, has 540 beds for inmates who have been sentenced to terms of up to 18 months. That jail, too, is being pushed to the limit of capacity.

The county's inmate population has grown by an average of 30 inmates a year over the last decade, according to a study commissioned by the detention facilities. In 1998, the county had an average daily population of 836 inmates. By 2007, it had 1,140.

The number of inmates jumps by 100 on Fridays with the arrival of prisoners who serve their terms on weekends only, officials said.

"Jail populations ebb and flow. They peak and valley. But the day is going to come when we are consistently over capacity," Harting said.

In September, the county reached its highest occupancy with 1,256 inmates at the two facilities, 81 more than they are equipped to handle.

Four large pod-style rooms at Ordnance Road, each designed for 48 inmates, hold 67, the maximum allowed by union contract to be under the supervision of one officer.

At Jennifer Road on Thursday, jail officials said 55 inmates classified as maximum security were mixed in with the general population because there were not enough cells to keep them separate.

Jennifer Road Warden Terry Kokolis such policies have led to more gang-related activity because it is harder to keep gang members apart.

"Fights and assaults have increased ... and our protective custody space stays full," Kokolis said. "I may have 18 or 19 fights and assaults in a given week, where two years ago I probably had 10."

The expansion project at Ordnance Road would have added 240 minimum-security beds, 160 maximum-security two-man cells and a 60-bed mental health wing. That would free 180 medium-security beds and 40 single cells at Jennifer Road.

In recent weeks, however, county lawmakers were lobbied by students, parents and teachers to "fund schools, not prisons."

"If we can educate the kids and provide the kids with what they need now, my hope is we don't have to provide them with jail cells later," said council Chairwoman Cathleen M. Vitale, a Severna Park Republican.

Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a Severn Republican who represents the district where the jail is situated, said that approving the expansion was an "impossibility" because the council learned of it only when the budget was proposed May 1.

Harting said that while she understands the council's priorities, her department will ask for the money again next year.

"I would not be doing my job if I didn't point to the county's growing correctional population and the need to address it," she said.

steven.stanek@baltsun.com

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