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Finally, Md. shuts prison

The Baltimore Sun

One visit to the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup in February and new Corrections Secretary Gary D. Maynard knew it shouldn't remain a maximum-security prison. But when a correctional officer was stabbed on March 2, Maynard concluded that the facility built in 1878 needed to be shut down immediately - and Gov. Martin O'Malley quickly agreed.

State prison officials have been complaining about the poor conditions, unsafe design and deteriorating structure of the House of Correction for at least 50 years. But through it all, the Maryland prison, which opened a half-century before Alcatraz, stayed open.

Until yesterday. After two attacks on correctional officers in 10 months, including the fatal stabbing of 41-year-old David McGuinn in July, O'Malley announced that the prison has been closed.

"For about 50 years we have talked about the need to close this functionally obsolete facility," O'Malley said yesterday, standing in the cavernous empty prison that he compared to something out of a James Cagney movie. "In about five weeks, we were actually able to close this functionally obsolete facility."

Those who have been asking for years why the Victorian-era institution was still open say it was the advent of new administration, the arrival of a new corrections secretary with a workable plan, the opening of a new prison in Western Maryland and a string of violent incidents that finally spurred the state to close the prison.

Its defects have long been known.

The House of Correction housed many inmates in tiered rows of cells that correctional officers could only patrol from narrow catwalks outside. Inmates could hear officers coming before the officers could see into the cells, prime conditions for an ambush, prison officials said.

Drugs, tobacco and other contraband flowed freely in a place where prisoners were hard to monitor, making it unruly and dangerous, officials said. The idea of closing the prison has been circulating in the state government since at least the 1950s.

But violence has escalated in recent years. Three inmates were killed last year at the House of Correction, and two other correctional officers suffered serious stab wounds after being attacked by three inmates in March 2006.

Bernard Ralph, a correctional officer, said it was "as bad as you could imagine."

"Staff came in here with a little bit of courage on one shoulder and a little bit of fear on the other shoulder," he said.

Advocates for correctional officers and inmates alike cheered the decision. They wondered what took the state so long.

"We would like to know the answer to that," said Kimberly Haven, executive director of Justice Maryland, a statewide criminal justice advocacy group. "It's been talked about for so long, it really has."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said the prison at Jessup was troubled for as long as he can remember. He said he can only imagine what Maynard - a veteran of several corrections departments in other states - thought when he got to Maryland and saw the House of Correction.

"The guy knows what he's doing," Busch said. "I can only imagine he took one look at that place and thought, 'This is a disaster waiting to happen.'"

Maynard said he knew about Jessup before he came to Maryland and that it was the first prison he toured.

Corrections was the major topic of the first meeting of StateStat - a government performance management system that O'Malley is implementing - and Maynard brought with him a PowerPoint presentation showing poor conditions and safety hazards stemming from the prison's design. He asked O'Malley for approval to turn the facility into a minimum-security prison, and the governor said yes.

But when an inmate repeatedly stabbed correctional officer Edouardo F. Edouazin, 28, with a homemade knife March 2, Maynard concluded that the prison was unusable in any form, he said. The next day, he sat down with his acting commissioner of corrections, John A. Rowley, and top deputies to figure out how to move more than 800 inmates without them learning what was going on, a level of secrecy that he said was essential to maintaining security.

Rowley said it was a tremendous logistical challenge, especially given that many of the most dangerous prisoners were being transferred out of state. He said the whole operation almost fell apart March 12 when New Jersey, which had promised an escort for prisoners passing through on their way to a federal facility in Massachusetts, insisted that they clear the state by 7 p.m., instead of by the next morning.

Rowley said prison officials scrambled to get that group of inmates on buses and out of the state within hours rather than jeopardize the entire operation.

When inmates began to catch on that something was happening, Rowley said, prison officials told them that the House of Correction was being turned into a minimum-security facility. That was technically true; the prison was a minimum-security facility for one day before those inmates were moved out, too.

"We went in with the attitude that hurdles that are there are not reasons not to do it," Rowley said.

Mary Ann Saar, who was the corrections secretary under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said his administration recognized the problems at the prison and moved to close it, though not as quickly as O'Malley. The Ehrlich administration was converting the House of Correction into a minimum-security prison, and last year, Saar put closure of the prison on the five-year capital plan for the corrections system.

"It's got a lot of hidden areas and corners, it's difficult to supervise, and it's so old that it was just falling apart," Saar said. "I'm really glad that Secretary Maynard went ahead and closed it so quickly. All I can say is, 'Good for him.'"

Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist and associate professor at the University of Baltimore, said Ehrlich might have been conscious of potential political fallout from closing the prison - especially with a tough election battle against O'Malley looming on the horizon.

"At the very least, for the last year or maybe two, probably politically it wasn't wise to do," he said. "We had a governor's race coming up, and Ehrlich probably didn't want to do anything that would upset the apple cart."

Del. Charles E. Barkley, a Montgomery County Democrat who heads the appropriations committee that oversees the prison system, said plenty of corrections secretaries have wanted to close the House of Correction but the lack of someplace else to put the prisoners - more than 800 at the end and at times more than 1,200 - made that impossible.

But the opening of the North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland in 2003 and the planned opening of a new wing this summer gave the O'Malley administration more flexibility, Barkley said.

Maynard said 97 inmates who were considered to be among the most disruptive were sent to federal prisons and to state facilities in Virginia and Kentucky. The federal prisons took inmates in exchange for Maryland's agreement to house an equal number of female prisoners. The other states are charging less to house the inmates than it cost Maryland to keep them at Jessup, Maynard said.

Newer prison facilities in Jessup - the maximum-security Jessup Correctional Institution, formerly known as the Annex, and the medium-security Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup - will remain open. Maynard said the closure of the House of Correction will enable the state to transfer personnel to them, bringing them up to full staffing for the first time in years.

Sue Esty, interim executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92, which represents correctional officers, said declining prison populations in Maryland gave the system more flexibility than before, especially when coupled with the opening of North Branch. Still, she said, closing the House of Correction - and doing it so quickly - was an astonishing feat.

"I think it really was a matter of political will," Esty said. "Going back to last fall when we met with the governor, the thing that impressed the correctional officers was [that] he said he was going to make security a major priority for him. After last July, seeing a correctional officer murdered there, and a couple of weeks ago seeing an officer stabbed there, I think that was the straw on the camel's back making it a priority."

O'Malley said it was the fear that delay could lead to more attacks on prisoners or guards that made him act.

"The biggest worries I have are the challenges in the corrections system," O'Malley said in an interview yesterday on The Marc Steiner Show on WYPR-FM. "And the picture I had in my mind's eye was that horrible Maryland House of Correction."

andy.green@baltsun.com jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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