Md. hands keys to Baltimore detention facility to U.S.

Officials say arrangement will be cheaper, fairer to federal detainees

February 08, 2011|By Yeganeh June Torbati, The Baltimore Sun

State officials formally turned over the keys to a Baltimore corrections facility to the federal government Tuesday, marking a new era in housing U.S. detainees in Maryland that authorities called cheaper, more efficient and more just. The deal also means the promise of $20 million in federal funds toward new state prisons.

The Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center —known as "Supermax" when it served as a maximum-security prison for state inmates — will now house only detainees awaiting trial in federal court in Baltimore, for which the state will receive $1.9 million per month.

The change, which has been in place for about five months but was announced formally Tuesday, places about 500 of 700 detainees awaiting federal trial in Baltimore in close proximity to court.

"We're not impacting a new community in any way; we're not building on anyone else's land," said Gary Maynard, the state's public safety secretary, at a reception marking the changeover.

For years, some federal inmates were housed alongside state prisoners at the center. But the bulk of the federal detainees being held without bail were scattered throughout county jails and other facilities in the mid-Atlantic region, requiring defense attorneys to travel hundreds of miles and across state lines — including to Ohio — to prepare for trial.

"It's at the basics of our civil liberties," said Stacia A. Hylton, director of the U.S. Marshals Service, noting that lawyers and family members will now have easier access to inmates.

Federal judges and public defenders in Maryland have urged for years that the state's growing number of federal detainees be held closer to where they will be tried, arguing that the court suffered unnecessary costs and delays under the previous arrangement.

"The federal court has quietly but persistently noted that there was a problem in the Baltimore-Washington area," said James K. Bredar, a U.S. district judge. "If they can't get ready for trial, the case is going to be delayed. That creates ripple effects," including motions from detainees alleging violations of their rights under the Fifth and Eighth Amendments.

About 700 federal detainees are being held in Maryland. Five years ago, there were about 500, said Rod J. Rosenstein, Maryland's top federal prosecutor. The number has increased over the past 10 to 15 years as the federal government has become more involved in prosecuting violent criminals.

A Baltimore jail dedicated to federal inmates "makes it a lot easier to work with defendants who are cooperating," he said. "It assures that they can get to court safer and more conveniently."

Previously, the U.S. government rented beds at MCAC for $198 per day, at a cost of more than $1.4 million per month for 240 prisoners. Now, the federal government will pay the state a flat fee of $1.9 million per month to house about 500 prisoners.

Helping to sweeten the deal for Maryland was the promise of $20 million from the federal government to partly fund construction of two 560-bed, minimum-security prisons in Jessup to house state prisoners. An added $26 million in state funds will go toward building the new Jessup prisons, which will be built in an area that is home to five other state correctional facilities.

About half the state and federal funds have been authorized for the first phase of design and construction of the prisons, said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. They are scheduled to be completed in a little more than two years.

The Baltimore facility on East Madison Street opened in the late 1980s to house the state's most violent prisoners and was made famous in 1991 when Harold Benjamin Dean, serving a life term plus 105 years for killing a tow-truck driver, managed to squeeze through an 8-by-22-inch window and escape using a rope made of clothing. He was captured 10 months later in Ohio.

Prisoners there — locked in isolation 23 hours a day — were linked to some of the state's most heinous crimes.

During Maynard's administration, state prisoners have quietly been moved out of the facility and into other prisons around the state, their empty beds filled by federal detainees. Maryland's five death row inmates were moved last summer from MCAC to the North Branch Correctional Institution near Cumberland, a technologically advanced maximum-security prison.

The U.S. Marshal's Office will maintain its contract with the county jails, keeping about 200 inmates at about 20 sites. Ted Stoler, a deputy U.S. marshal, said the U.S. government will pay the jails a per diem of $50 to $125 per prisoner.

Federal inmates cannot all be housed in one jail, Rosenstein said, because some might be cooperating with authorities against other defendants.

In recent months, officials have worked to bring MCAC up to federal standards, adding private meeting rooms for attorneys and clients, more security cameras and making changes to make the facility more accessible to the disabled. In keeping with federal standards, a nurse will be available around the clock.

Officials from the Department of Justice inspected the facility about three weeks ago and are expected to issue their findings soon on whether it meets federal standards, said Johnny L. Hughes, the top U.S. marshal in Maryland.

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