ANNAPOLIS -- In this period of economic slowdown, Bishop L. Robinson still presides over one of the true growth industries in Maryland: the state prison system.
As secretary of public safety and correctional services, he is also manager of a prison construction and expansion program that is likely to consume a half-billion dollars in taxpayers' money over the next decade.
Just yesterday, Mr. Robinson and the Board of Public Works set in motion plans to build three new prisons -- a 420-bed minimum-security dormitory adjacent to the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County; a combined 1,824-cell medium/maximum security prison and a 420-bed minimum-security prison in Allegany County; and a nearly $2.2 million meat-processing plant as part of the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.
Unless trends unexpectedly change, the construction of buildings to incarcerate Maryland criminals is likely to continue unabated well into the next century, Mr. Robinson said.
Although the net number of new inmates coming into the prison system has declined sharply from a high of nearly 350 a month about a year ago, Mr. Robinson said he still has to find places for another 110 inmates each month to sleep and eat.
The prison system was built at a one-person-per-cell capacity of about 11,000, but now houses 18,300 inmates and is steadily growing, the secretary said. Even when planned construction over the next 10 years is completed, he said, "that's not going to be enough."
The addition to ECI in Somerset County will be built in part with JTC inmate labor. The building is expected to cost $8 million to $9 million, Mr. Robinson said. But the new Western Maryland prison could cost as much as $160 million. The final figure will depend on which site is selected next month.
Both projects are viewed as sources of steady employment in far-flung regions of the state that have long battled high unemployment, caused by the demise of manufacturing jobs or the dwindling ability of local residents to make a decent living at farming or working the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
The board, headed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, yesterday authorized Mr. Robinson's department to spend $730,000 to buy used equipment -- pickup trucks, backhoes, concrete trucks, a crane, dump trucks, a forklift and other items -- to build a plant that will produce precast concrete. Then, using a design perfected by a Delaware prison inmate serving a life sentence for murder, Maryland inmates will be put to work building their own minimum-security home.
For the Allegany County prison, the board approved $140,000 for preliminary architectural and engineering work and development of a master site plan and a plan to bring utilities to the site.
Counting boiler and roof replacements, renovations and other smaller jobs, the prison system has at least 50 construction projects going on simultaneously, the corrections secretary told the board.
In addition to the prisons to be built in Somerset and Allegany counties, Mr. Robinson said, the state has completed work on or plans to build housing units at the prison central laundry in Sykesville, at both the Patuxent Institution and the main prison complex in Jessup, and at the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore.
The state also runs a three-prison complex in Hagerstown, where an inmate riot a week and a half ago caused more than $1 million in damage. And on July 1, the crowded Baltimore City Jail, with its 2,800 inmates and staff of 600, will officially be placed under state control.
The secretary said the prison system is expected to oversee ever-increasing numbers of inmates, but with fewer and fewer resources.
"The public sentiment is: The public wants people locked up," he said. "They don't want rehabilitation . . . whatever that is."
Mr. Robinson complained that the problem with prisoners "is on the front end," where society has failed to identify, educate, counsel or treat people before they turn to a life of crime.
"They give him to corrections, and expect us to transform him into a model citizen. . . . They ask us to perform a miracle," he said.