Md. Jail May Get Federal Inmates

Use Of Former 'Supermax' Expected To Lower Costs

July 27, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

Maryland and U.S. authorities have settled upon what they call a workable plan to house hundreds of purportedly dangerous federal detainees in one spot: a hulking but underused Baltimore prison formerly known as "Supermax."

Maryland's growing federal prisoner population has been spread among two dozen facilities in multiple states - including Ohio - for years, boarded in rented space at rates that rival finer hotels.

It's a risky, expensive and travel-intensive arrangement that most hate, but no one has been able to fix. Every suggestion drew criticism from somewhere.

"Our travel costs are going through the roof," said James Wyda, Maryland federal public defender. "One day you are driving to Salisbury. On another day you are driving to the Allegany County Detention Center. Next week, you are in D.C. and Orange County, Va."

But those inmates could be housed in Baltimore within the next three years under a widely supported proposal developed by Federal Detention Trustee Stacia Hylton and Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary D. Maynard.

This plan may win where others failed because it doesn't call for building a new federal facility in the city, an idea Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has vowed to quash. Instead, it recommends outfitting the existing Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, or MCAC as it's now called, for 600 federal detainees by improving its medical services and soundproofing attorney rooms, among other things.

The U.S. government already rents space at MCAC for $198 a day per prisoner, placing up to 240 people there for $48,000 a night, the highest rate paid for Maryland's federal inmates. But they're mixed in with convicted state prisoners, who have different requirements and restrictions.

Under the proposal, those state convicts - five death row inmates, and roughly 150 people in transition from other places or who require segregation - would be sent to jails elsewhere in Maryland. In exchange, the federal government would contribute up to $20 million for two new lower-security state facilities already approved and under development in Jessup, nearly half of the state's $45 million projected cost.

"It's a very good solution for everybody," Maynard said, acknowledging that it's not quite a certain deal. The plan is contingent on federal funds coming through in the next fiscal year, which begins in October. But, like many others, he's hopeful.

"You know how sometimes all the stars are lined up?" Maryland's U.S. Marshal Johnny Hughes said. "Well, they're all aligned now."

MCAC opened 20 years ago as a $21 million lockup built for the state's "worst of the worst" prisoners, replacing the violence-prone South Wing of the Maryland Penitentiary, where a guard was stabbed to death in 1984. But it quickly came under fire from state officials who complained that prisoners were on lockdown for 23 hours of every day and that there was no space for counseling or educational services.

Officials have considered tearing it down and, over the past year, they've shifted high-security prisoners to the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland, the state's new "Supermax."

Adjusting MCAC and filling it with federal prisoners could give the facility a practical purpose for the first time in years.

But the solution could also be detrimental to some of the facilities that have come to rely on the revenue, however, such as the Allegany County Detention Center. An official there called the marshal's office in Baltimore this month, worried about what the proposal means for that facility. Some space would still need to be rented to keep certain federal prisoners separate from one another, but not nearly at the same rates.

And MCAC is probably not a long-term fix, federal judges and others said. But, they added, it would significantly improve many short-term problems.

"It would make my job a lot easier to have one facility with everybody in it," said Deputy U.S. Marshal Ted Stoler. He oversees prisoner operations and deals with the shuffle every day.

Marshals pick up and drop off prisoners from hours away, delivering them to the Baltimore or Greenbelt courthouses. The longer travel times mean more opportunity for escape attempts, putting the U.S. marshals who transport them in danger, along with the public.

Most of the country does it Maryland's way, with space contracted from regional facilities. Nearly 45,000 people, about 80 percent of federal detainees, are housed this way. The rest are in federal facilities.

And for decades, that system worked, back when "federal prosecutors generally went after tax- and white-collar criminals," said Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. There wasn't much need to deny those defendants bail and, consequently, no need to house them while awaiting trial.

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