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New city jail? Not so fast

Fresh off a tour of the corruption-plagued Baltimore City Detention Center, some lawmakers appear eager to hand the state corrections department a half-billion-dollar get out of jail free card, so to speak. Shocked by the antiquated structure, which dates in part to before the Civil War, some members of a legislative task force are saying that the state needs to get serious about building a new jail.

There is no doubt that the detention center is far from ideal. It is a cobbled-together warren of cells and hallways with poor sightlines, and it experiences frequent problems with basic systems like plumbing. But focusing on the age of the facility is a convenient distraction from the myriad other problems that led to the corruption there. The city jail was old long before alleged Black Guerrilla Family leader Tavon White showed up and, according to a long list of federal charges to which he intends to plead guilty, started running a lucrative business in contraband drugs, cellphones and other items. The age of the jail did not make the 13 corrections officers who have been indicted so far in the case more susceptible to corruption, nor did it prevent jail administrators from implementing effective security and disciplinary procedures.

When Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary D. Maynard first arrived in Maryland six years ago, the first thing he did was to declare that the old House of Correction in Jessup — which was 20 years younger than the city detention center, incidentally — was too antiquated to be safely managed. He acted with admirable decisiveness to close the prison and move all of its inmates to other facilities, a feat he managed to accomplish quickly, quietly and safely.

That's not possible at the city detention center. A new facility would be easier and more efficient to manage, but the costs and logistical hurdles inherent in replacing the detention center are daunting. Tearing down the existing structure and building on the same spot is likely not feasible because there is nowhere else to put the 3,000 people who are detained there at any given time. Unlike the inmates at the House of Correction, they cannot be farmed out to other facilities around the state because they are pretrial detainees who must be held in proximity to the city's courthouses. That's why the department's capital projects master plan calls for the gradual replacement of the detention center over a 15-20 year period.

Even if all the logistical hurdles for immediate replacement could be overcome, would the taxpayers of Maryland rather spend $500 million or more on a state-of-the-art city jail or on state-of-the-art schools, research labs or hospitals? If the investment was necessary to guarantee that staff and detainees are safe, that would be one thing, but a new facility offers no such assurance. On the same day that the legislators toured the city detention center, The Washington Post reported a rash of inmate-on-staff violence at the North Branch Correctional Institution in Western Maryland, the state's newest and most modern facility.

Tellingly, Mr. Maynard has not pointed to the facility's age as an excuse for the corruption there in recent years. Corrections officials have taken several steps to heighten security there, including installing more surveillance cameras and implementing a new random search protocol for staff, inmates and visitors. They are also working to install new technology to intercept unauthorized cellphone calls made from the jail — a tool with the potential to make it much more difficult for future Tavon Whites to coordinate so pervasive a corruption ring. That technology has already proven effective in a trial program at the Metropolitan Transition Center. And there is more that can be done; at the top of the list is to replace the old key-operated doors with ones that are electronically controlled.

The age of the city detention center certainly presents complications for the corrections department, but it doesn't begin to explain everything that has gone wrong there. We need to fix those problems before we start talking about spending a half-billion dollars — or more — to replace it.

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