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City Jail transfer will change lives of jailed, jailers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the state of Maryland takes control of the Baltimore City Jail today, the city will be rid of a financial drain, the state's public safety chief will have a chance to create a model pretrial program for offenders, and Felix W. Smith will be out of a job.

From Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke down to Correctional Officer Smith, the merger of the largest local detention center in Maryland with the state's pretrial release system promises to have a great and varied impact on institution and individual alike.

The jail's 850 employees already are feeling the effects. Correctional officers, who have been undergoing state-mandated drug testing, and the other staff will arrive for work today as six-month probationary employees. The medical staff that cares for an estimated 2,600 inmates who are housed in the antiquated, Gothic stone building will be working for yet another health provider -- the fourth in three years. And the union members among the employees will lose their collective bargaining rights.

Still, state public safety chief Bishop L. Robinson says the "future is very bright" for City Jail workers.

For the inmates, the majority of whom are awaiting trial, the new administration is taking steps to better monitor their stays. Inmates will be required to wear identification wristbands. The state has purchased a special computer system that will identify inmates by their fingerprints, enabling jail officials to track a prisoner's movement through the jail and to reduce the chance of mistaken releases. Inmates in the jail's home monitoring program will be subject to the tougher restrictions of the state's home detention unit.

At the same time, Mr. Robinson wants to bolster pretrial services for offenders, to reduce the number of inmates who are jailed while awaiting trial and to increase the length of work details for those inmates.

"There are offenders in this place that don't need to be here," Mr. Robinson told a legislative subcommittee last week during a briefing on the state's takeover of the jail.

Mr. Robinson's plans for the new Division of Pretrial Services and Detention are ambitious. They include construction of a previously proposed 800-bed wing that will be built next to the jail in downtown Baltimore and will contain a state-of-the-art facility in which all people arrested in Baltimore will be booked and charged.

"This is a unique opportunity . . . to become a model for the nation," Mr. Robinson said. "This is the first time the state is providing supervision over offenders from pretrial through release."

The management team assembled by Mr. Robinson -- a group that includes a lawyer and community corrections specialist from New York, a 30-year veteran of the state prison system and the finance director of the city police department -- have their work cut out for them.

They inherit a jail with a troubled history, a facility that is more than 100 years old and that only two years ago was bulging at the seams. They inherit a correctional institution where inmates frequently outfoxed their jailers and escaped, key security posts were left unmanned and classification records went unfiled.

The jail is under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, a long-standing decree -- relating to medical care, fire and safety issues and programs -- that has been aggressively monitored by U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman and two court-appointed masters. Since last year, when the jail added 100 new beds, the inmate population has consistently been below the court-ordered cap of 2,813. And earlier this year, the medical contractor at the jail received accreditation by the National Correctional Commission on Health Care Standards.

Mr. Robinson has pledged to "extend every good-faith effort" to ensure that jail employees will receive the same pay or only slightly less when they are reclassified as state workers in January. He also expressed confidence that the state would be able to get out from under the federal court order because of its commitment to improve operations in the jail.

"I think they've had a tremendous first 100 days," Delegate Timothy Maloney, D-Prince George's, said last week, following a legislative tour of what will now be known as the Baltimore City Detention Center.

But Mr. Maloney, who chairs a powerful appropriations subcommittee on corrections, said, "The costs have been tremendously underestimated, particularly in the areas of food services, health and renovations. There are a couple of decades of neglect that the state is going to have to address."

The proposed fiscal 1992 budget for the new Division of Pretrial Services and Detention is $45.2 million. Of that, $42.9 million is for the Baltimore detention center. The jail's current budget is $39.2 million.

When Gov. William Donald Schaefer first proposed the jail transfer in January, legislators wondered and worried about the ZTC long-term costs of such a move. Last week, Mr. Robinson told Mr. Maloney's subcommittee that the proposed 800-bed wing -- a facility crucial to his operational plans for the department's pretrial services and detention division -- would cost in excess of the $38 million in capital funds he has on hand. But he couldn't say how much more the project would cost until the department develops a five-year capital plan.

"This is not a program that's a Taj Mahal. This is a program designed to promote efficiencies," Mr. Robinson said.

The public safety chief said the toughest challenge facing department officials now is fitting the jail employees into the right jobs within the state system. Union officials representing correctional officers and clerical staff say their members are anxious about the transfer. Some have lost compensatory time for which they will not be paid; others expect to lose several thousand dollars a year in salary because the state pay scales are lower, union officials say.

Chester Wilton, of the City Union of Baltimore, said union members worry that the state will blame them for deficiencies in the jail, problems that stem from a lack of city resources.

Mr. Robinson said, "We're putting the past behind us. I can assure the employees at the city jail that their future is very bright."

Unfortunately, Mr. Smith won't be among those employees. A former state prison guard, Mr. Smith came to work at the City Jail 3 1/2 years ago. Under the transfer, he can't continue to collect his state pension and work as a new state employee in the detention center. And he is barred from staying in the city pension plan, he said.

Mr. Smith said he was told that if he wants to keep his job, he will have to repay about $49,000 in pension benefits he has received over the past 4 1/2 years.

Mr. Smith, who won a mayoral citation for helping to disarm an inmate who tried to escape from the jail, said he can't afford to work for the state under those conditions. "I am being penalized for doing a job. I'm 50 years old, and the only thing I've ever done is corrections and security," said Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith's case is the exception. Sallie Williams, of Council 67 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said her members, the jail's correctional officers, have received assurances that they most certainly would be retained if they pass the mandatory drug test and have no felony criminal charges.

But she said their primary worry is having to "start over." Even though Mr. Robinson has assured the unions that their members will be treated justly, she said, "the fear just doesn't go away."

Ms. Williams acknowledged that working conditions for correctional officers should improve under the state.

"Their concern [at the jail] was always safety," Ms. Williams said. "One month I had 100 grievances filed because of safety violations. With the state, the money is there to correct this problem."

The state has already taken one small step toward improving safety for officers.

During an audit of the jail operations, state officials discovered that correctional officers in the jail "had only 30 good working radios," said Lamont Flanagan, the acting commissioner of the new pretrial division.

There should have been three times that number, he said. The state has since purchased 92 radios for the staff, he said.

Frank Dunbaugh, the lawyer representing inmates who sued the jail over its conditions, said that the state takeover may prove beneficial to his clients but that it's much too early to know.

He said he worries that the state, which traditionally has had custody of convicted felons, may "tend to want to treat the jail the same way the prisons are treated."

For example, he said, the jail provided pay telephones for offenders. Mr. Dunbaugh said state prisons have telephones from which only collect calls can be made.

The difference in price is about 60 cents, he said.

"It's my view that someone in the jail needs to make calls more than anyone else -- they need to arrange for bail, they need to arrange for their defense. They've just been removed from their families, and they may need to make arrangements there," he said.

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