'Robo-Pen': One Md. Alternative to More Prisons


A buff-colored building at the corner of East Madison Street and the Fallsway in Baltimore carries a desperate burden of hope for a prison system choked with inmates serving longer sentences.

Sometime in September, freshly manacled suspects will be ushered into this $54.2 million building, which includes a highly automated booking system designed to speed processing, dismiss weak cases and reduce the pressure caused by thousands of people awaiting trial.

The Central Booking and Intake Facility, already thought of as "Robo-Pen" by some prison officials, was built around an IBM-designed management information system, a computer-based, flow-charted production line for busted, miscreant humanity.

Facing constant demand for space to house violent criminals, officials are attempting to re-engineer Maryland's prisons and corrections system while developing alternatives to incarceration.

"We are looking at a situation, using the traditional approach, in which we score zero," said Public Safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson during an interview last week. "We can't build our way out of this situation."

The state's inmate population stands now at about 21,300, almost double the total 10 years ago. Another 10,000 or so offenders, serving a year or less, are in county jails.

The average length of sentence actually served in Maryland is just under 60 percent, as compared with a national average of 33 1/3 percent.

A 3,500-case backlog in Baltimore Circuit Court could double the population of those awaiting trial in the state-run Baltimore Detention Center, officials predict. The center held 3,135 inmates late last week.

Prisoners waiting to be booked now are herded into dark holding areas called "bull pens" equipped with portable toilets on wheels. They sleep on tables in dayrooms, on blue plastic "boats" jammed onto the gym floor and in outside facilities run by Volunteers of America.

Incarceration suggests immobility and confinement, but inmates are constantly moving through Baltimore's corrections complex, which includes the maximum-security Maryland Penitentiary and a "super-maximum-security" facility for the state's most dangerous inmates.

Trucks and vans trundle suspects to and from court, to and from lockups and to and from temporary sleeping quarters. Buildings scheduled for demolition remain in use, overflowing and under renovation.

One consequence: Bits of metal and glass construction materials become knives. One of these was used to stab an inmate recently, leaving him paralyzed on the left side.

In the midst of this chaos comes the new building on East Madison Street. Nine police district booking operations will be merged into this single unit.

The soon-to-be accused will get a baby blue wrist band similar to but wider than those given to hospital patients. A digitized video mug shot and fingerprints taken by copier-like technology will be stored in a computer along with information on outstanding warrants. Everything will be bar-coded onto the high-technology bracelet.

Guards with hand-held scanners will then be able to "wand" the code and learn the prisoner's identity, his location in the booking process and anything else the system's computers have recorded. This information will be available upon release as well, a further safeguard against releasing the wrong person.

Guards won't have to get on the phone or troop down the hall to a records center -- an important time-saver when so many are being processed.

Information gathered and entered into computers will be available instantly to the courts and police. Time will be saved by having public defenders on site and by bail review hearings done by a judge in the Mitchell Court House via video cameras. Plenty of auxiliary power and backup computer capacity is built in to keep the production line moving.

Suspects will be held in angular, phone booth-sized holding cells on the second floor.

Even now in their baleful emptiness, these cells with their stainless steel sinks make the abstract numbers measuring the scope of crime in America concrete: Two hundred suspects can be accommodated in this area each and every day, 365 days a year. The jail's 811 permanent cells are located on upper floors.

In the course of a year, the new booking facility will handle between 60,000 and 70,000 persons arrested in the Baltimore metropolitan area -- 45 percent of all Marylanders arrested each year.

The "re-engineering" means in theory that city police officers, now consumed by the booking process, can be returned gradually to patrol.

If all goes according to theory, many arrestees will be processed all the way to trial and sentenced or released in a matter of hours or days at most. No more months-long sojourns awaiting trial, no more of what Secretary Robinson bluntly calls "subsidized housing."

Yet, so far, judges are unwilling to sit in prison-based courtrooms. Already, even before its officially scheduled completion in September, the new building is handling an overflow from the nearby City Detention Center, which is under a federal court order to keep the population at 2,933. The threat of fines of up to $50,000 a day has forced Secretary Robinson to move prisoners into the new cells as sleep-overs, returning them to the jail each morning.

Known for his implacable endorsement of harsh penalties and for looking at rehabilitation with unrivaled skepticism, Secretary Robinson said he has been forced to see the problem in a different light.

Nothing is to be gained by pressing forward with a building program that has added 12,000 new prison beds at a cost of $465 million since he took over the top public safety post in 1987, he said.

"If incarceration is supposed to have an impact, it seems like we'd have some kind of crime reduction," he says with a wry smile. "Instead I see crime going up. Something is wrong. We can't build our way out of this crisis. There isn't anyone who doesn't agree. Well, there might be some who think we can."

Virginia has adopted a no-parole policy that calls for creating more beds for an inmate population that's expected to double by HTC the year 2005. Many other states are embarking on construction programs to handle growing numbers of inmates sentenced to stiffer prison terms.

Meanwhile, Secretary Robinson says, the American people may be less eager to incur the costs of locking up inmates for longer terms than politicians whose rhetoric raises the emotional intensity of the debate.

Former Del. Timothy F. Maloney, who urged alternatives to prison and adoption of the new booking system, says politicians get sharply different messages from budget analysts and

campaign managers: Running on the lock 'em up and forget 'em platform gets you elected, but then you begin to see the prison system as "a cancer on the budget.

"There was an enormous frustration in the assembly about this, so we impounded a portion of the correctional budget for new construction. That money [about $4 million] had to be used for developing alternatives to jail."

The broad-based committee had urban and rural, Republican and Democratic members.

"We were united. And we had admiration for Bishop. We beat some swords into plowshares," he said.

Out of this meeting came Maryland's Correctional Options program, which grants early parole for prisoners serving 10 years or less. Armed robbers, rapists and murderers are not eligible. About one-quarter of the prison population does qualify.

Options enrollees, most of whom have drug and alcohol problems, are re-introduced to the community gradually: Steps include a 30-day pre-parole program of classroom instruction; home detention monitored electronically via anklets or bracelet devices connected with a central directory; counseling at day-reporting centers; and intensive parole supervision including urinalysis. About 850 inmates are in this program at any given time.

"We need to think about what the American people really want," Mr. Robinson said. "They favor a balanced approach: prevention, treatment as well as punishment. It's common sense. Why should we fill up the jails with individuals who are drug dependent and committing crimes because they are drug-dependent?

"We are arresting 60,000 to 70,000 Baltimoreans each year. That's 10 percent of the population. Look at the far-reaching consequences of using only the traditional approach, the cost in dollars, the cost in lives, the cost in integrity of the system, the cost in young people with records. . . ."

But fear drives the debate, Mr. Maloney says.

"Everyone of us is afraid of the one case, the one case that makes it all go bad, the nightmare case." He is referring to Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a Maryland woman while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison. Then-Vice President George Bush used that real-life nightmare to defeat Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign.

For the politician and public servant, Mr. Maloney says, the bottom line question is this: "How much risk are you willing to tolerate?"

There is some risk in every option, but some of the alternatives now in use address underlying problems of a population that will be back on the street whatever the length of their sentence, Mr. Maloney said.

"Not many prisoners leave in caskets," he said. "Almost everyone leaves on his own two feet."

D8 C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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