Notoriously violent Maryland House of Correction comes down

The long arm of a crane towered above the old brick structure, a wrecking ball dangling below from a cable. A crowd of about 100 looked on, counting down.

A machinery operator pulled a lever and the ball fell with a crash, signaling the end of a long, often frightful chapter of Maryland history.

Workers from Berg Demolition Inc. had bashed a hole in the roof of the Maryland House of Correction, the notoriously violent prison Gov. Martin O'Malley ordered closed in 2007 after two guards were stabbed, one fatally. The teardown of the 134-year-old building, which stood empty for more than six years, had begun.

To many on the scene, the moment brought a sense of closure, if not elation.

"This had to happen," said Howard Lyles, a retired corrections official who served as the prison's warden during the early 1980s. "The building was completely outmoded. It was too expensive to operate. I mean, what else were you going to do with it?"

For decades, everyone from corrections officers to politicians had agreed the Jessup prison — which was designed in the mid-1800s for petty offenders and opened on Jan. 1, 1879 — lacked even the basic design elements that make modern houses of correction safe.

In that regard, it resembled the Baltimore City Detention Center, the city jail where a corruption scandal that came to light last year is still in the spotlight amid calls for the jail's replacement.

That facility, which dates to 1858, features the same dark corners, crooked passageways and multitiered hallways that make it hard for guards to monitor inmates and for wardens to monitor staff.

Corrections officials said those shortcomings, typical of that era's prison design, played a significant role in the long history of violence and other problems at the House of Correction and made it easier for corrupt activities to flourish at the city jail.

Last month, a state legislative commission endorsed a $533 million plan to raze the Baltimore facility and build a new one based on modern principles.

"I'd be 100 percent for that idea," said John Wolfe, a state warden who oversees the Jessup Correctional Institution adjacent to the House of Correction. "The problems at both places are similar. The way they were laid [out] just doesn't promote best correctional practices or safety for inmates or staff."

If the proposal for the city facility ever comes to fruition, planners say, officials could do worse than to pattern their work after the deconstruction of the House of Correction, a prison long known by its more colorful nickname: "Old Cut."

Those involved in the project say the approach they've taken could serve as a model for officials across the country dealing with similarly antiquated facilities.

Though the state presented Friday's wrecking-ball event as a milestone — Maryland's corrections chief Gregg Hershberger briefly addressed reporters, and prison officials gave what was likely the last guided tour of its interior — the deconstruction began months ago.

Following a plan devised by then-corrections chief Gary Maynard, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services teamed up with the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation to involve inmates at other Jessup prisons in disassembling the prison's interior.

The goals were to salvage as much of the building's internal fixtures and materials as possible for recycling purposes and to offer the inmates marketable construction skills.

In all, 120 inmates — all of them scheduled for release within three years — have taken part in gutting the interior.

Backed by a $150,000 grant from the Abell Foundation, the prisoners gained training and state certification in a dozen different trades, including asbestos abatement and lead paint removal.

The deconstruction is the largest-ever project of Public Safety Works, an "inmate restorative justice" program within the corrections department that features as many as 400 inmates a day performing meaningful jobs to pay society back, said Mark Vernarelli, a department spokesman.

"We started this deconstruction from the inside and worked our way out," said David Bezanson, an assistant corrections secretary, who runs capital projects for the department.

Sending repurposed equipment to other Maryland jails saved the state's taxpayers more than $300,000, Vernarelli said. By offering tons of copper, brass, stainless steel and other materials for recycling, planners also cut about $4 million off the original cost estimate of $10 million.

The whole project, officials said, cost about $4.5 million. There are no specific plans for the site.

Jessup residents were glad an obsolete prison was being razed — and that planners were wasting no resources.

"We have a request in for some of the bricks so we can build signs saying 'Welcome to Jessup,' " said Dana Herbert, secretary of the Jessup Improvement Association.

An afternoon wind whipped through a yard next to the prison as the crane, all 45 tons of it, hoisted the wrecking ball, bringing it down again and again onto the roof of the jail's oldest corridors.

It slowly widened the hole, eventually toppling the white balustrade below the roofline and sending it into a growing pile of rubble. The crowd held cellphones aloft to record the occasion.

As David Thrower, a 33-year-old inmate from Frederick, saw the walls begin to topple, he smiled.

He had helped remove the copper piping and brass fittings from within that wing, getting hazmat certification in the process. He said he looks forward to working in the hazmat field when he's released next year.

"It's nice to look up and see the fruits of your labors," he said.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad