A clever inmate in Baltimore County's 12-year-old Detention Center can jimmy his cell door so that the control booth guard thinks it's locked when it's not.
Inmates who sneak out of their cells that way can't get very far, but officials say that this will no longer be a problem in the Towson jail's new $17.5 million addition.
Nearly finished, the 216-bed facility has cell doors that slide open and shut using pneumatic power. Its large control booths can house two guards and have clear views into all the cells, which should increase control over the inmates.
The common areas of the new addition's two-story jail pods, where up to 40 inmates will live two to a cell, are much larger than the current ones. They're equipped with sound-absorbing ceiling and wall tiles to reduce clamor in the wide-open spaces. Windows in the new pods are smaller and strengthened by large metal bars.
Meals in the new addition will be delivered from a large new kitchen already on trays, to reduce inmate disputes over food portions and to increase security.
The new facility has the Detention Center's first large food storage facility, which includes a large cold-storage room that will allow the cooks to make meals in advance.
Jail administrator James Dean said he has tried to use every security lesson he's learned during 12 years in the current Kenilworth Drive facility to make life easier and safer in the addition, scheduled to open in September. A formal dedication ceremony is scheduled for Aug. 17.
County officials hope the addition will relieve chronic overcrowding in the Detention Center, which was built to house 326 inmates, mainly one to a cell. In recent years it has housed up to 550, occasionally resulting in cells that house three inmates.
September will also mark the opening of the county's 100-bed drunken driving treatment prison in Owings Mills, which should further reduce crowding pressures in Towson.
The opening of the new Towson addition will herald what Mr. Dean said he sees as a perilous transition period. With the movement of some inmates into the new section, workmen will begin major renovations of the old one, one pod at a time.
Mr. Dean said the thought of workers with tools in a building that still houses inmates gives him nightmares, but he's looking forward to the results.
As part of the renovations in the older building, workmen will replace electric panels in the guard booths that now indicate, sometimes falsely, that individual cell doors are locked. Inmates who take advantage of malfunctions and leave their cells can't get beyond the locked doors in the common area of their pod, but the change will give guards more control.
The cinder blocks in the current jail will also be tested to see if they are properly filled with concrete and iron bars or if they are hollow.
Several Detention Center inmates attempted to escape through hollow cinder blocks on April 28. Guards discovered that the prisoners had removed four connecting cinder blocks from their cell walls and were about to break through the thin outer veneer to climb down to the street on a rope made of sheets.
The cinder blocks they removed were supposed to be filled with concrete, as the original plans had specified. So workers will be filling those that are empty.
The inmates considered the most dangerous will be moved to the section at the top of the new addition, originally intended for female inmates.
Instead of moving to the new facility immediately, the women will remain at the 44-year-old facility at Towsontown Boulevard and Bosley Avenue.