Schaefer stands firm on moving prison boot camp from Jessup to Fort Meade Proposal faces strong local opposition

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It appears one man stands alone in the fight to move the state prison boot camp from Jessup to the grounds of Fort Meade -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Hundreds of Anne Arundel residents, from politicians to those living nearby, have made it clear they feel Odenton is no place for a barracks filled with 500 prisoners.

"The delegates are saying no," said Zoe Draughon, a resident of Seven Oaks, a 4,700-home development being built across from the proposed boot camp. "The congressmen are saying no. The senators are saying no. The county people are saying no. The residents are saying no. The Army is stuck because the governor is saying yes."

The governor, who has heard their arguments, remains unmoved.

"I am a strong advocate of locating it there," Mr. Schaefer said in an interview Thursday. "It's the same as anywhere else. They don't want it in their community. This is a place ready-made for it. . . . I'm not going to change my position under any circumstance."

Local Army officials have remained silent about placing the boot camp at Fort Meade. Several times their recommendation has been expected, and several times it has been delayed. Community leaders say they anticipate a response very soon.

Some civic leaders and lawmakers believe the silence means a deal was cut months ago between the Schaefer administration and then-garrison commander Col. Kent D. Menser.

Maryland corrections officials proposed moving the Herman L. Toulson Correctional Boot Camp to the Odenton base last year to gain more space for women prisoners at the crowded complex in Jessup and to expand the camp from 365 inmates to 500.

The camp would be in old Army barracks 100 yards south of Route 175, near a site earmarked for a $40 million science center and an Environmental Protection Agency laboratory.

The camp is a rigorous six-month course aimed at changing attitudes of first- and second-time nonviolent offenders. It is the last step of incarceration for many prisoners before they are released.

"We have the best boot camp in the country under [state Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services] Bishop Robinson," Governor Schaefer said. "It provides people who are on their way out of the system with the discipline to get a job."

Existing barracks

The governor said that Fort Meade is nearly perfect for the boot camp because the barracks, while needing refurbishing, are already there.

But County Executive Robert R. Neall, who has often sided with the governor on other issues, said the move could destroy years of work that has made West County into a thriving community.

Local leaders and residents say a prison does not mesh with the image Fort Meade has been selling for the past three years in its attempt to survive a flurry of military cutbacks.

Colonel Menser worked tirelessly to promote a new Fort Meade as home to a federal office park and college campus.

The self-described mayor of the area who has since retired, Colonel Menser had nurtured his relationship with civic leaders, attending their meetings and inviting them to discuss concerns with him.

But that air of goodwill evaporated in June when residents read about the proposed prison in newspaper articles. Colonel Menser was quoted as saying he would make a recommendation on the state's proposal before he retired at the end of the month.

The base quickly scheduled a public meeting to head off public outrage, but the damage had been done. Residents packed the hearing room, demanding to know why the first formal presentation of the proposal was occurring only two weeks before deadline.

And while Colonel Menser denied he had formed an opinion of the proposal, his unbridled enthusiasm for new projects led residents to believe he supported the idea.

More public input

Four days before Colonel Menser was to make his decision, he opted to seek more public input. The whole issue was left for his successor, Col. Robert G. Morris III, who has declined requests for interviews.

Colonel Menser said there was no attempt to hide the proposal, pointing out that a news statement was sent out in October 1992, briefly describing the state's request and saying the issue was still under study.

Mr. Robinson, answering complaints at an August community meeting, said Fort Meade officials told him that they wanted to handle the public relations.

That explanation has not appeased local lawmakers.

"This has been handled badly by the Department of Public Safety from the beginning," said Del. John G. Gary, R-Millersville. "They just had to go into the community at the start, and we could have had some agreement. Since they didn't do it, the community is not going to go for a compromise."

Mr. Schaefer denied withholding information. "Nobody hid it from anyone," he said. "It was known to the community."

Politicians and residents have developed their own theories as to why Fort Meade, at least initially, seemed so interested in the boot camp.

Mr. Gary said Colonel Menser had his eye on political office -- which he has repeatedly denied -- and some residents said the commander felt he owed the state for its support of his command.

"Normally, the base would have backed out with this much community opposition," Mr. Gary said. "The issue has stuck around because of the governor's influence. I suspect that is why the base hasn't backed out as easily. The question is, how badly does the governor want this?"

Del. Marsha G. Perry, D-Crofton, said Fort Meade's delay in announcing its recommendation may be a positive sign for the opponents. "I think their silence is very loud," she said.

Mr. Gary, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said he was contacted by Mr. Robinson several weeks ago about a meeting with area lawmakers, but nothing has materialized.

"He wanted to try and discuss a compromise," he said. "I told him I didn't think that was possible. At this point, I think we are deliberately not being told what is going on."

The delegate, who also sits on a subcommittee that oversees the Department of Public Safety, said he will ask Mr. Robinson about the source of the money for camp relocation during the next legislative session.

Threat of blocked funding

If the state pursues its goal of moving the boot camp to Fort Meade, Mr. Gary said he will block funding for some projects.

"We have the ability to tie up specific funds," he said.

Ms. Perry said Mr. Robinson has a "tremendous problem" with crowding that must be dealt with.

Norman G. Myers, the president of the Greater Odenton Improvement Association, agrees, but says the way to deal with it is to build a new women's prison, not to move women prisoners into the present Jessup boot camp as a stop-gap measure.

But Mr. Schaefer said it could take three years and millions of dollars to build a new women's prison. Crowding needs to be addressed now, he said.

Mr. Myers thinks the state is passing the buck.

"The Army is the fall guy right now, because their officials have to come to a decision first. And that's unfortunate. But we are going to kill it one way or another."

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