Moving death row

Our view: Shifting five inmates awaiting execution to Western Maryland makes sense

June 29, 2010

Anything the state does that's related to the death penalty is bound to arouse the suspicions of partisans on both sides as they try to figure out whether it pushes Maryland's stalled capital punishment system toward revival or extinction. But the surprise move of the state's five death row inmates from the downtown Baltimore facility once known as Supermax to the North Branch Correctional Institute in Cumberland shouldn't arouse condemnation on either side. It simply makes sense.

The circumstances give the shift a greater air of drama than it warrants. The move of the inmates last week was only announced after the fact, and even then, prison officials wouldn't discuss the details, even to say what day the move occurred. As cloak and dagger as this may seem, it's the second time state corrections chief Gary D. Maynard has pulled off such a move — in 2007, he moved the entire (and much greater) population of the Maryland House of Correction to other facilities as a precursor to closing that antiquated prison without telling anyone. The 842 inmates there were moved out in small groups over a two week period without incident. That feat earns him some benefit of the doubt that he knew what he was doing when his agency orchestrated the logistics of this move.

As for the question of whether the prisoners should be moved at all, the shifting patterns of usage of Maryland's prison facilities made the change almost inevitable. The former Supermax has, other than death row, not been a maximum security facility for some time. It is now mostly used as a transit hub for other Maryland prisoners and as a jail for pretrial federal detainees. North Branch is where the most dangerous of felons go, and if one were to create a Maryland prison system from scratch, that is surely where death row would be.

Opponents of capital punishment questioned the move, however, saying it puts the death row inmates farther from their lawyers and families. Of course, that's also true of the thousands of other prisoners who committed crimes in central Maryland who are now housed in prisons in Allegany County. It is an unfortunate byproduct of our effort to construct safe and affordable prisons, but it's no more a burden for death row inmates than anyone else.

Critics also said the move makes the whole concept of capital punishment more remote in the minds of most Marylanders. But a key element of the plan is that while the inmates will be housed in a special wing of North Branch, executions — if they are ever resumed — will still take place in Baltimore's Metropolitan Transition Center hospital. If Maryland is going to keep executing prisoners — and we hope it won't — it's crucial that residents be forced to confront the fact of capital punishment right in the center of the state and not have it hidden in some remote location.

The state law governing execution procedures makes it especially important that capital punishment be carried out in a central location; execution warrants provide a five-day window during which the execution can take place, and corrections officials are forbidden from revealing the exact date and time in advance. Holding executions in Cumberland, as the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services considered at one point, would make it extremely difficult for supporters and opponents of capital punishment to mount demonstrations.

The bottom line for opponents of capital punishment is this: If they get their wish, and the state outlaws executions, or Gov. Martin O'Malley at some point acts on his convictions and commutes the sentences of death row inmates, North Branch is where they would probably be housed anyway. This way, if that ever happens, they'll just be saved another secretive move.

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