Hogan didn't consult lawmakers before closing jail

A tour of the Baltimore City Detention Center in Nov. 2013.
A tour of the Baltimore City Detention Center in Nov. 2013. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

When Gov. Larry Hogan decided to close Baltimore's long-troubled men's jail, he didn't call members of a state commission who had studied the issue. He didn't call the mayor of Baltimore. He just did it.

"You don't do this by committee," said Stephen Moyer, Hogan's secretary of public safety and correctional services. "You make a decisive action. Look at this place. It's got to be closed."


At a news conference Thursday announcing the closure of the Baltimore City Detention Center, Hogan said he didn't consult other politicians because he wanted to "make this decision without it being interfered with by politics." He said he didn't even read a 10-year plan for upgrades to the prison complex in East Baltimore.

"The General Assembly decided it should take 10 years. We think it should take a couple of weeks," said Hogan, a Republican. "The Baltimore City Detention Center has been a black eye for our state for too long."


His go-it-alone style was criticized as brash by Democrats but praised as bold by members of the GOP.

"As a Republican, I wasn't consulted when [Democratic former Gov. Martin] O'Malley did things," said Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr. of Baltimore County, who served on the General Assembly commission that studied the jail two years ago.

Hogan's decision to close the jail is "absolutely a great idea," Cluster said. "In the commission, we all thought this place was antiquated and it needs to come down. It's a disaster waiting to happen."

Democratic lawmakers expressed concern about a lack of communication.


State Sens. Guy Guzzone and James E. DeGrange Sr., who together chaired the commission, said they were disappointed to learn of Hogan's plans through the news media.

"Consistently the Governor has circumvented the Legislature rather than working together to find bipartisan and consensus-driven solutions," they said in a joint statement. They faulted the governor for "making large scale decisions behind closed doors."

Guzzone and DeGrange noted that the population at the jail, where some inmates are detained while awaiting trial and others serve short sentences, poses different challenges than the state's prisons.

In his announcement, Hogan characterized state lawmakers as dragging their heels on jail reform. He pointed to the 2013 indictments of inmates and corrections officers on charges of widespread corruption, resulting in 40 convictions.

"In case you have forgotten the shocking and disgraceful headlines, for years the Black Guerrilla Family gang maintained a stronghold over this facility, running an empire built on the trafficking of drugs, contraband and intimidation," Hogan said. "Maryland taxpayers were unwittingly underwriting this criminal enterprise run by gang members and corrupt public servants."

He singled out O'Malley for ridicule.

"When the first indictments came down, the previous governor called the case a 'positive achievement in the fight against gangs,'" Hogan said. "It was just phony political spin on a prison culture created by an utter failure in leadership."

Aides to O'Malley, who is running for president, did not respond to requests for comment.

Towson University communications professor Richard Vatz, a conservative, said Hogan's comments struck him as harsh but true.

"The language is a little harsher than I'd expect, but the point seems to me to be inarguable," Vatz said. "Who could deny that was political spin? It's precisely accurate with a little bit of panache."

As for Hogan not consulting with Democrats, Vatz said that's a two-way street.

"I suspect he feels his office has been disrespected by the Democrats and disrespected by the mayor's office," Vatz said. "My guess is he's saying, 'I'm not going to have a one-sided collegiality here.'"

State Sen. Michael Hough, a Frederick County Republican who has called for the jail to be returned to city control, said he, too, wasn't consulted about the decision. But he said he doesn't care.

Hough called Hogan's move "positive" and said it was possible because the jail holds fewer inmates now that city police don't use the zero-tolerance arrest policies O'Malley championed as mayor.

"Quite frankly, I don't know why it took so long to do it," Hough said of closing the facility. "The city hasn't been paying the bill for it. Martin O'Malley could arrest as many people as he wanted and charge it to the state."

City lawmakers said they were encouraged by the plans to close the jail but frustrated that they weren't consulted.

State Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat, said an aide to Hogan called her Thursday to inform her of the plan.

"I think the [city] delegation would have appreciated a bit more of a heads up because it is the city jail," she said.

Pugh added that she and other city lawmakers took a tour of the facility last month with Moyer.

"The conditions there certainly leave a lot to be desired," Pugh said. "There was a door broken for years that had not been fixed. Inmates were in deplorable conditions. People were sleeping on slabs. ... It's something that needed to be done."

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, also a Baltimore Democrat, agreed.

"I wish they had touched base with the delegation in Baltimore City, but we have a Republican administration now," she said. She added that she was concerned about where the corrections officers would be placed.

"The facility is in terrible shape. There's no doubt about that," Conway said. "The inmates will be better off in another facility. But I just don't know what his strategic plan is."

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said she has "long had concerns about this facility."

"She looks forward to hearing more details from Governor Hogan's administration about its plans," he said.