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Open house at a former big house

Now-shut Jessup prison gets its last looks

- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2012

JESSUP, Md. — For more than a century, the Maryland House of Correction was a place its residents hoped to escape, but on Sunday, hundreds of people lined the front walk in the hot sun, waiting for their last chance to step inside the prison grounds.

This weekend marked what are expected to be the final public tours for the historic facility, a brick monolith that sits atop a hill in Jessup surrounded by towering fences and endless coils of barbed wire. Shut down five years ago when inmate violence reached a fatal peak, the quickly deteriorating prison is set for deconstruction later this yearby specially trained inmates who are close to their release dates.

Wandering the dim corridors and studying the peeling paint and crumbling cell bars, visitors took their time inside the stuffy prison. Some asked questions like curious neighborswho knew little about the old building, while others remembered what it was like to walk those halls many years ago.

"It's a sentimental thing," said Baltimore resident Peaches H. "I couldn't remember how to get here."

The 57-year-old asked to remain somewhat anonymous as her ex-husband is still incarcerated in a neighboring prison, but 20 years ago, the Maryland House of Correction was a place she visited frequently to see her former spouse. On Sunday, she came with her grown daughter —barely a year old when she visited her father behind bars — and grandson.

"I came to see where he actually slept," she said.

The visiting room, mess hall, and tiny cells all had an impact on Ms. H., but she said she wanted to see where her ex-husband spent time.

"I just felt like I should come down here," she said. 'It's still a part of my life."

The last warden of the Maryland House of Correction and the man in charge of the deconstruction, Gary Hornbaker, said inmates began dismantling the facility last September, evidence of which could be seen from wood and metal doors stacked along walls, and dozens of porcelain toilets grouped in corners.The entire project is set to finish in late 2014.

Mr. Hornbaker, 62, said the reuse of some of the prison's property at other correction centers has saved about $140,000 so far. Reused items include bricks, plumbing fixtures, cell doors and fencing.

The inmates taking apart the building have roughly two or three years of prison time before their release, Mr. Hornbaker said. Some of the workers can get certified in asbestos and lead abatement, which can be put on future resumes.

"People don't realize that 94 percent of inmates are going home. They're going to be your neighbors," Mr. Hornbaker said. "What are they going to do? Nothing, because you have given them anything?"

Just this week, the neighboring Patuxent Institutionsaved $22,000 by using equipment from the House of Correction, said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Public Safety and Correctional Services Department.

Officials estimate that deconstruction over demolition should save taxpayers millions of dollars, as well as keep extra materials out of landfills.

Mr. Vernarelli said that more than 800 people visited the prison on Saturday. Among those visitors were former employees and even a few inmates, he said. On Sunday, a detective and judge also made their way through the building.

"I think people are mostly just curious about how a prison operates," he said, a belief echoed by Columbia residents John and Melissa Wales, who took part in one of Sunday's tours.

As they studied the handmade weapons and contraband seized from former inmates, Ms. Wales said she and her husband didn't know the historic prison was in the neighboring town.

"It looks worse than I thought it would," she said.

The Maryland House of Correction officially opened on Jan. 1, 1879 with a population of 200 inmates. Some of the most common offenses that landed men in jail at the turn of the 20th centurywere vagrancy and begging, though according to a record in the mess hall, one inmate was behind bars for "puncturing a mare."

Over the decades, the prison grew to include farmland, a dairy herd, and various production areas for broom making, bookbinding and tobacco drying — all places where inmates worked.

Along with jobs, the prison also added buildings and more inmates, many of whom were incarcerated for charges much more serious than unauthorized train riding.

In 1979, 30 men escaped the prison through a dormitory window all during one attempt.

The correctional facility, nicknamed "the Cut" because of the nearby railroad that sliced through the land, entered its most violent years in 1945. Those extended well into the early 2000s. In 2006, a corrections officer doing a nightly round was fatally stabbed by two inmates. Months later, three officers would also be stabbed, though none of them fatally.

Faced with escalating violence as well as a deteriorating facility, in what Mr. Vernarelli described as "probably one of the boldest and unusual moves," Gov. Martin O'Malley and then-Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary D. Maynard shut down the prison in March 2007. Within two weeks, about 800 inmates were shuffled out of the House of Correction and an additional 1,200 prisoners moved around to other facilities in the state to make room for the new residents.

Though the prison has had its bloodier times, Mr. Hornbaker said that when he walks through the halls now, he sees the friendly faces of fellow staffers.

"There are so many memories here," he said. Like walking through your grandmother's house before it is sold, he said, "you'll never be in this house again."

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