Steven Sias' prison is a chaotic rowhouse filled with family pictures and statuettes of praying hands. Grandma has cooked up bean soup and corn bread, and the TV that will be Mr. Sias' constant companion drowns out the coos of the wide-eyed, 5-month-old baby sister on his lap.

The jailers are a whole street of Southwest Baltimore relatives, who say 18-year-old Steven has another think coming if he ventures to cool off on the front steps or otherwise make that box on his ankle set off a whole pack of trouble for everybody.

This is the prison of the future -- home.

An assault conviction from "a fight with an ex-friend" landed Mr. Sias in the minimum-security Baltimore City Correctional Center

for a month before he qualified for the state's electronic monitoring program, which allows him to serve time at home and alerts correctional officers if he steps outside for an unapproved reason.

"We got everybody on this block to watch him," Mr. Sias' stepmother, Paulette Sias, said the day of his homecoming, pointing up and down the 300 block of Norris St. "He will be minding." Then she softened: "I'm glad they can do this. It's been too long since he's been home."

With the billion-dollar prospect of building more prisons and with the public eager to lock criminals up for longer terms, politicians have seized on electronic monitoring as the lifeline out of a money pit. But officials acknowledge -- and developments around the country bear out -- that putting large numbers of prisoners into home monitoring is risky.

Instead of taking up prison beds, inmates on home monitoring provide their own shelter and food. Computers track them through voice checks and ankle bracelets that send radio signals. State law requires case managers to screen out those serving life sentences, most violent offenders, former escapees and child abusers, along with anyone else who seems too dangerous.

Both candidates in November's gubernatorial showdown -- Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, and Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, a Baltimore County Republican -- want to expand electronic monitoring as one way of punishing nonviolent offenders while making room for dangerous criminals behind bars.

With 82 percent of home detention inmates making it to release without a violation, state public safety officials say they have one of the best electronic monitoring programs in the country.

Inmates in home detention have committed few serious crimes while in the program, Maryland officials

say. One possible exception was a parolee who violated the detention program, became a suspect in two slayings in Baltimore and then was found dead in Virginia.

Saving money

The financial benefits are evident: It costs about $18 a day to electronically monitor an inmate, compared with about $44 to keep that inmate in prison. Corrections officials estimate the program will save Maryland taxpayers $7 million in the current fiscal year.

Officials say that to make home detention a big part of the prison system, they would have to select riskier inmates, tolerate more violations before sending participants back to prison and allow prisoners additional time away from home.

Such changes could lead to new crimes -- and even kill the concept here. New Jersey, for example, shut down its electronic monitoring program after a drug offender slipped out of his bracelet and fatally shot a teen-ager in 1992.

Proponents of home detention say the public has to accept that kind of nightmarish possibility or mortgage the future on prison construction.

"We [must] recognize that we need to tolerate additional risk," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's Democrat who is a former chairman of the House Budget subcommittee on law enforcement.

Bishop L. Robinson, state secretary of public safety and correctional services, said the state's program could double its capacity to about 1,000 offenders by adding participants in a new long-term outpatient drug treatment program that is just starting.

Many drug offenders do not qualify for home monitoring now, but the new treatment program requires day reporting and more supervision of inmates, allowing some of them to be on home detention without endangering public safety, Mr. Robinson said.

That prospect might not sit well with some judges. Baltimore District Judge Kathleen M. Sweeney lobbied last year for a law to allow city judges to keep some pretrial prisoners out of the program. One of her special concerns was drug sellers.

Judge Sweeney said problems with home detention have eased since the law took effect in July but that she does not think it is the answer to prison crowding.

"I've had a guy in on the fourth [driving while intoxicated], and it was time for this gentleman to go to jail," Judge Sweeney said. "So I sent him to jail and they put him on home detention. What kind of message does that send?"

Expanding the program could be harder than politicians make it sound.

Under current law, few of Maryland's more than 20,000 inmates are eligible. The state program could accommodate up to 550 at a time, but rarely do as many as 400 inmates make it through the screening. That number includes prisoners awaiting trial and parolees, along with those serving sentences.

In June 1993, with about 350 prisoners in the state program, Richard A. Lanham Sr., Division of Correction commissioner, directed all wardens to recommend as many inmates as possible for home detention. Lately, the number has ranged from 375 to 400.

Inmates can be on home monitoring for as long as a year and a half, but officials try to limit them to eight months. "That's the maximum time before we all get on each other's nerves," said Capt. Susan Murphy, assistant administrator of the program. "The sponsors get tired of it, and the inmates get tired of it, and we get tired of them."

The state could purchase equipment to monitor practically every move an inmates makes, but the technology is expensive and imperfect, Mr. Robinson said.

Around the nation, home detention programs often end up being used as extra supervision for offenders who qualify for probation or parole anyway, meaning that home monitoring doesn't really reduce the number of inmates behind bars.

Several Maryland counties have their own home detention programs for pretrial prisoners. A number of district court judges have put certain offenders, such as drunken drivers, on probation with the condition that they be monitored by one of a handful of privately operated home detention businesses that have sprouted around the state.

Mr. Robinson said expanding the state program to 1,000 inmates might not sound like much but eventually would mean the state could build one prison fewer.

"I think we can generate more candidates," he said, calling long-term drug treatment "the missing ingredient."

Home detention inmates stay fairly active during the day, with jobs or state labor to perform, addiction-counseling sessions and visits from social workers, officials say.

Nighttime is when the prisoners have a 50-foot range within their homes in which to pass the time. Some lift weights, as they did in prison. Stereos and TVs blast when home detention officers visit.

Some inmates say they eat too much, sleep too much or both.

"They will tell you that it's hard and that it's not fun," said Richard A. Sullivan, administrator of the program. "That's the way it's supposed to be. These are the best of the bad guys. If they fail, it's real good for us, because we know that they shouldn't be out."

Each inmate wears a black box the size of a cigarette pack strapped to an ankle, with a thin fiber optic cable across the bracelet to prevent tampering. The bracelet sends a radio signal to a rectangular box resembling a videocassette recorder.

A bank of computers at the home detention center, at 2100 Guilford Ave. in Baltimore, dials the boxes constantly through modems. Officers also monitor the inmates with a system of random "voice print" checks in which the prisoners repeat a series of words to be compared with earlier recordings of their voices. Unscheduled visits are supposed to be made to each home at least once every two weeks.

If the signal between bracelet and box is broken, the box tells the computer, which sends a voice test to determine whether the inmate is home. Then a correctional officer is sent.

Equipment failure frequently is to blame. In three months of home monitoring, Norman W. Greenwald Jr., an Anne Arundel County contractor who pleaded guilty to fraud after his company won a $300,000 paving contract at Oriole Park at Camden Yards by falsely representing itself as a female-owned business, had to have his ankle bracelet replaced six times.

If the prisoner so much as opens the back door to set out the trash, the computer is supposed to record a violation.

Equipment flaws

It doesn't always work that way. Consider Matthew Wheeler, 30, who, despite professing an ardent desire to obey all rules, was seen lounging on his porch with a cigarette when Sgt. Roland K. Miller Jr. pulled up for a recent unscheduled visit at the Park Heights rowhouse where Mr. Wheeler was living.

"I was just sitting outside. But I was in range," he told the sergeant. Mr. Wheeler's box had been placed strategically close to the open front window, to keep the bracelet on his ankle from telling his keepers he was outside.

"It's nerve-racking," Mr. Wheeler, who was awaiting trial on charges of malicious destruction of property and battery, said of the box. "It keeps me on my toes. It keeps [the sergeant] relaxed."

Nevertheless, Mr. Wheeler went back to the Baltimore City Detention Center at the end of August for once again straying out of range, home detention officials say. (Several days later, his court cases were placed on indefinite hold and he was released.)

Since the program began in 1991, 224 of its more than 7,000

inmates have escaped, meaning they were away from home without permission for more than 45 minutes. Fewer than a dozen are still at large, said Captain Murphy.

Sixty-one people have been charged with committing new offenses while on home detention. The most common are domestic violence and drug offenses, most of which take place inside the homes, Captain Murphy said.

Those numbers don't include the case of Kevin Derand Flight, the parolee wanted by police in the killings of two men in Northwest Baltimore last December while on the way home from his job. Flight was found dead of gunshot wounds in an Arlington, Va., motel room less than a week after the Baltimore slayings, But Captain Murphy says the home detention equipment worked fine: When Flight left his house, monitors knew immediately.

What they couldn't know was where he had gone.

Some vendors have developed new monitoring equipment that could pinpoint an inmate's location away from home. But state officials are moving cautiously; too much data may be a bad thing.

"Guy goes down the street to work," said Charles Santa, a home detention case management supervisor. "Now you know he walked one block out of his way. You've got to deal with that. . . . We'd be pulling our hair out and we'd need an army of officers out here."

Mr. Robinson said that if the technology was developed correctly, it would not require more staff members. He said that if inmates knew they were being precisely tracked, most would not stray from their approved routes.

If they could watch his every move, home detention monitors would know whether Michael Graves was driving with a suspended license again. As it is, Mr. Graves, sentenced to about five months for that offense and resisting arrest, said he is grateful to be able to take care of his two young sons instead of losing touch with them in prison.

At first, they were curious about his ankle pack.

"I explained to them that daddy had got in a little trouble and that this just gives me the opportunity to be halfway home and halfway locked up," Mr. Graves said. "It lets me show them what can happen if they get older and get in trouble."

In some cases, the program seems far removed from stiff punishment.

VTC Norman Greenwald, the Camden Yards contractor, did his time in a modest 2 1/2 -story house a few feet from Middle River.

Still, the pleasant setting was a far cry from the rambling 5,000-square-foot rancher he was accustomed to sharing with his wife and three children in Prince George's County. He could not live there because his home is outside the range of the central monitoring unit. The 82-year-old aunt of a business partner took him into her Essex home, but his family was able to visit only on weekends. Mr. Greenwald is back home after completing his sentence Sept. 9.

Physically fit at 38, with a six-figure income and snakeskin boots covering the telltale ankle bracelet, he looked nothing like the typical prison inmate.

In an unusual arrangement with home-detention officials, he was allowed to drive an average of 325 miles a day to supervise contracting projects for his new employer, Cossentino Contracting Co. Inc. Most inmates on home detention are not allowed to drive at all.

Mr. Greenwald appreciates the opportunities he had, particularly when he recalls the martial arts moves he used to keep other inmates from stealing his boots during two weeks in the Baltimore City Detention Center.

While on electronic monitoring, he passed the time doing business paperwork, reading and ruminating on this unexpected turn in life. In that last respect, he was no different from any other inmate in any kind of prison.

"I made a promise that when I got out I was going to share my experience, good and bad, with my community," Mr. Greenwald said. "I'm thinking about where I'm going to take this all."

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