Crowded and idle, inmates a 'powder keg'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Take a peek inside the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup, home of too many inmates and too few guards.

Behind the fences and razor wire, inmates are jammed in two-man cells so narrow the warden can spread his arms and touch both walls. Others live in the gym, where 90 bunk beds take up half the basketball court. The wing where the men used to learn trades is deserted. Classrooms are often empty.

Most teachers and social workers are gone, as are all of the recreation workers and drug treatment counselors. Thirty jobs for correctional officers remain unfilled, casualties of Maryland's 2 1/2 -year-old financial crisis.

Some state officials worry openly that overcrowding, understaffing and inmate idleness in the state's 24 prisons have reached the danger point.

"I think we're sitting on a powder keg," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, the state legislature's expert on prisons.

"It's worse than I've ever seen in my 25 years in corrections," said Jon P. Galley, warden of the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.

"Officers are scared for their lives," said Lisa Nichols, a correctional officer at the Baltimore City Correctional Center. "Not only for the safety of themselves but for the public."

The state's budget crisis has given a new urgency to a 2-decade-old problem with overcrowding, while drugs and a rising crime rate have fueled the relentless flow of criminals into Maryland prisons.

In the last five years, the inmate population grew five times faster than the prison work force. During the last 24 months alone, the number of inmates rose 16 percent while the number of prison staffers remained unchanged.

Almost 100 more inmates are arriving each month than are leaving.

Maryland's prison population -- which neared a record 20,000 last month -- is growing at a faster rate than that of 32 other states. The prisons are the second most-crowded in the South, according to a 1991 study by the Southern Legislative Conference.

That's partly because Maryland, as a largely urbanized state, experiences more crime than its more rural counterparts. It also keeps convicts behind bars longer. Inmates here serve 61 percent of their sentences, compared with the national average of 45 percent.

Meanwhile, state officials are torn between the conflicting desires of taxpayers who want criminals behind bars but don't want to pay more taxes to keep them there.

The operating budget for prisons grew 12 percent in the last two years as new facilities opened, reaching a total of $351 million, or $200 per household. Still, the state can't afford to fill 700 job vacancies.

If inmates continue to arrive at the current rate, taxpayers would have to come up with another $200 million every two years to build a new prison.

"If we were to lock up everyone who committed a crime and they were to serve a full sentence, it would literally bankrupt the state," said Mr. Maloney, a Prince George's County Democrat.

Hiring freezes have made it difficult for wardens to replace officers who quit or retire. As a result, officers at most prisons are working more overtime.

On average, correctional officers now work 2.5 hours of overtime a week. It was less than two hours a week last year, said Richard Lanham, the state corrections commissioner. Increasingly, some officers are being forced to work extra shifts.

"You can't be alert and observant if you're overworked and you're tired -- if you work 16 hours, go home and you're right back at work eight hours later," said Officer Nichols, who was interviewed in the office of the Maryland Correctional Union in Baltimore.

Wardens also respond to staff shortages by leaving some correctional officer posts unstaffed at different times. At Roxbury, from five to 12 posts are left unstaffed -- "collapsed" in prison jargon -- on any given day, Warden Galley said.

"I'm nervous about collapsing any post," the warden said. "No, I've never gotten to the point where I'm endangering security. . . . But we couldn't respond as quickly to a problem as we could if [properly] staffed."

There have been no major incidents of prisoner unrest since 55 inmates and officers were hurt during a riot at the overcrowded Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown in May of last year.

Still, working conditions they regard as risky worry officers such as Ms. Nichols, especially since so many inmates are idle in the wake of program cuts.

The Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup, for example, canceled vocational classes in auto shop, graphic arts and heating and air conditioning after losing the instructors.

The prison also lost two-thirds of its teaching staff, and inmates wait as long as 10 months to receive basic schooling. A typical inmate has only a seventh-grade education.

A cut to the state Health Department last year left hundreds of inmates throughout Maryland without drug and alcohol treatment, though self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous continue to meet. The loss of 35 social workers sharply reduced counseling.

Those who believe in rehabilitation say the cuts mean prisoners will have more trouble solving the problems that helped get them in trouble in the first place: drug abuse, insufficient schooling and lack of job skills.

"If people come out of prison with the same addictions and lack of skills they went in with, they're coming out ready to commit a new crime," said Michael A. Millemann, a University of Maryland law professor and a founder of the non-profit Public Justice Center.

Some legislators, however, say it's hard to justify spending more on criminals while spending less on welfare programs for law-abiding families and the sick.

"It's certainly more important to take care of the elderly or the developmentally disabled than prisoners," said state Sen. Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery County attorney who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee.

"I think you're finding that people who may have been on the more liberal side of the issue are deciding that maybe you can't coddle these criminals," he said.

Maryland's attempt to "build" its way out of the prison problem has not worked, some lawmakers say, because the state never seems to catch up to the demand for beds.

Over the past six years, the state has added about 8,000 beds to a dozen existing and new prisons across the state. More beds are on the way, if the economy cooperates.

Another 2,000 beds at three new housing units are supposed to be ready before July 1, although it remains unclear if there will be enough money to hire staff for all of them, said Leonard A. Sipes, spokesman for the Public Safety Department.

Budget problems also have forced the state to cut by half its plan to build a 2,500-bed prison in Allegany County. A 1,300-bed prison will be built there first, Mr. Sipes said, with the potential to expand the facility by another 1,200 beds later on.

With the budget writing on the wall, the state has been moving since 1990 toward alternatives that supporters say are cheaper.

One such alternative is home detention, which turns a convict's home into his prison by employing high-tech surveillance, constant electronic monitoring and computerized voice identification. Another is the state's boot camp for selected inmates, who spend six months in a military-style regimen.

The General Assembly this year also increased the number of early release credits certain inmates may earn to a maximum of 20 days a month, allowing them to shave time off their sentences through good behavior, work and the like. The cuts in school and vocational programs, however, make it harder for prisoners to earn credits in the first place.

The risk of early releases, home detention and other alternatives is that a dangerous inmate would exploit the opportunity. Mr. Maloney is among those who believe the state has no choice but to take some risks. It cannot afford to keep building and staffing prison after prison, the delegate said. "We're going to have to tolerate risk."

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