As Marsha G. Maloff moves among the male inmates at the Central Laundry Facility, she exudes confidence and authority. Many inmates smile and greet her with "Hi, boss."
"I don't hang out in the yard," said Ms. Maloff, administrator of the minimum-security prison in Sykesville. "But the men see me often and they know who I am."
While she remains constantly alert, she said she has no fear for her safety. That confidence stems from the efficiency of her 99 staff members and the kind of inmates sent to the facility.
"These men are getting to the end of their sentence and earning their parole through good behavior," she said. "They just want to do their time and get back into society. It's to no one's advantage to have an unruly place here.
"Our function is to provide a safe environment where an inmate's rights are not violated and where he has access to the courts," Maloff said.
The state established the Central Laundry Facility in 1960 on seven acres of land adjacent to the Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville.
Nearly all 500 inmates in the facility have a job. Most work in the laundry, where they handle 40 million pounds of laundry a year -- washing, drying and pressing linens from Springfield and three other state mental hospitals.
The noise and heat generated from eight enormous washers, four water-removing extractors and 18 dryers in nonstop operation are stifling.
Work begins in the early morning and continues for one six-hour shift, staffed by about 125 inmates. By midday, the inmates have shut down the machines and processed about 40,000 pounds of sheets and blankets for delivery to the hospitals. Often the turnaround is 24 hours.
"Each washer holds 800 pounds and takes two pounds of detergent and a cup of bleach per 48-minute cycle," said Aaron Cohen, laundry supervisor for 17 years.
On Saturdays, the laundry building is open for maintenance crews.
"Lint removal takes up much of the time," said Mr. Cohen said.
Guards are posted throughout the three buildings on the complex and on the grounds. Two dormitories house about 500 men in a smoke-free environment. Inmates have access to pay phones and have liberal evening and weekend visitation.
For most of the day, the yard is open to inmates as is a baseball diamond, where the men often warm up for games in the Carroll County fast-pitch softball league.
The men wear their own clothing.
"Uniforms are too expensive," said Ms. Maloff said.
Turnover among the prison population is fairly rapid, Ms. Maloff said. Usually men stay at the facility from six months to a year before entering a work-release program near their home communities.
One exterior fence topped with barbed wire surrounds the compound. No watch towers are required in this minimum-security facility. At random times announced throughout the day, inmates must report to their bunks for a security count.
"Most of these inmates have spent a significant portion of their incarcerations in larger institutions," Ms. Maloff said. "This facility is a step up on their way back to their communities. They are near the end of their time and are preparing for release."
That is not to say no one escapes.
"Any correctional facility has escapes," she said. "We are not casual about it, but it is a fact of prison life."
"We could build 30-foot-thick walls and somebody would still find a way out," said G. T. Jaeger, a corrections officer.
All but one of the seven escapees in the past three years have been apprehended, "usually far from here," Ms. Maloff said.
Most inmates "co-operate in their confinement" and finish their incarceration without incident, she said. "Once the sentence is done, he becomes John Q. Citizen like everybody else," she said.
The population ranges from lifers awaiting parole after serving 20 or more years to men who have received short sentences and were "on the streets two weeks ago."
Inmates are tested for re-entry into society on several work programs. Escorted by correctional officers, some work on road crews with the State Highway Administration. Others work at the Maryland Police Correction Academy in Woodstock.