County jail expansion work begins

Plans include new medical wing

October 26, 2008|By David Kohn | David Kohn,david.kohn@baltsun.com

Ground has broken on a $29 million addition to the Harford County Detention Center. Officials said the project, which will be finished by September 2010, will ease overcrowding at the jail, at 1030 Rock Spring Road, by adding 76,000 square feet of space.

"This is a good day for Harford County," said Warden Elwood Dehaven, who spoke at the groundbreaking Thursday.

The jail has a capacity of 474 prisoners; Dehaven said, but at times, the number of prisoners has been as high as 550. With the addition, the jail will be able to hold 762 prisoners.

The expansion has been debated for a decade, although in-depth discussions began three years ago. Construction actually began a month ago.

The addition will encompass what is now the parking lot on the east side of the detention center. Those parking spaces will be moved to an area next to the entrance.

The new facility will include a state-of-the-art medical wing. While the current jail, at 123,000 square feet, has medical facilities, they are not as comprehensive.

"It'll be a big improvement on what we have," Dehaven said.

Harford County Sheriff Jesse L. Bane, who pushed hard for the expansion, said the addition is not a wholly happy occurrence.

"It's bittersweet," he said. "It's unfortunate that we need jails, but we need it."

Speaking at the groundbreaking, Bane noted that a recent study found that the new jail would reach capacity within a decade.

Harford County is growing rapidly and is expected to continue growing, in large part because of base realignment and closure, the expansion of Aberdeen Proving Ground that is expected to bring 20,000 jobs to the county within the next two years.

"We recognize that with BRAC, we're going to have an expanded population," said County Council Vice President Richard C. Slutzky, who spoke at the groundbreaking.

During his administration, Bane has focused on decreasing recidivism among prisoners by helping them deal with the problems that pushed them to commit crimes.

"The jail has become an infirmary, an asylum, a homeless shelter. That's not what a jail is for," he said. "These people should be elsewhere besides jail."

Bane said he hoped that programs to help addicts, the homeless, and people with mental illness - populations that significantly overlap - could reduce the number of prisoners and push off any future expansions. There is no more space to build at the current site, so any future expansion will have to be elsewhere, Bane said.

The money for the project comes from the state and the county. The county is providing $16 million, and the state is giving $13 million.

The detention center opened in 1973 with a capacity of 100 inmates. Since then, it has undergone three expansions.

Prior to 1973, Harford County's prisoners were kept in a jail on Main Street in downtown Bel Air. That facility was first used in 1774, when it was a converted farmhouse.

Bane remembered that as a young deputy sheriff 35 years ago, he helped inaugurate the center by transferring prisoners from the Main Street jail.

The detention center houses those awaiting trial or sentencing and those serving sentences of 18 months or less.

The jail is the entry point for anyone accused of committing a crime in Harford County, from trespassing to murder.

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