- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

JESSUP, Md. — Gov. Martin O’Malley yesterday officially closed the 129-year-old Maryland House of Correction after about 840 inmates were quietly removed from the facility, which was the site of repeated stabbings and slayings.

“I always felt like we were in a race against time to get our correctional officers and the inmates out of this facility before another stabbing or, God forbid, another murder happened, and so I’m one very relieved governor today,” said Mr. O’Malley, a Democrat who took office in January.

A guard and three inmates were killed at the maximum-security prison last year in separate attacks, and another guard was stabbed earlier this month, though he survived.

Lawyers for prisoners’ rights and union officials representing correctional officers cheered the decision to close the prison, which was notorious for its dark, cramped and hard-to-guard halls, narrow catwalks, broken locks and 45-square-foot cells. The average daily population last year was 1,261.

Stephen Meehan, an attorney for Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland, called it “an ancient prison” that lawyers and investigators he worked with were afraid to enter.

“This, in my view, is probably the best thing to happen to improving conditions of confinement for Maryland inmates than anything that’s come along the pike,” he said.

Bernard Ralph, of Council 92 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents correctional officers, said the prison was antiquated when he started working there in 1979.

“It was absolutely dangerous,” he said. “If you didn’t have fear with you, something was wrong.”

Until the last inmates left Saturday night, the prison had been in continuous use since it was built in 1878, state correction officials said.

Mr. O’Malley compared the banks of cells stacked on top of each other to something out of an old James Cagney gangster movie, with horrifically real consequences for correctional officers who struggled with poor visibility to contain aggressive inmates.

“The whole design of this place is something that dates to just after the Civil War,” Mr. O’Malley said. “And it’s no way for us to be able to protect our correctional officers or inmates, and we have to do both.”

The state moved 655 inmates during the prison’s last week of operation. The 97 considered the most disruptive were sent to federal prisons across the country and to state prisons in Virginia and Kentucky. Other inmates were moved to prisons in Baltimore, Cumberland, Hagerstown and Westover on the Eastern Shore.

Sue Esty, executive director of AFSCME of Maryland, said she was optimistic the transfers would not overburden other Maryland prisons.

“They’ve been very careful in figuring out where to send the inmates, and I think the other facilities are going to be well prepared to handle this change,” she said.

While conceding Maryland’s correction system still has a long way to go, Mr. O’Malley said shutting down its most notoriously violent prison was a step in the right direction.

To illustrate Maryland’s overall prison violence problem, Mr. O’Malley compared the number of serious assaults in Maryland’s system with the much-larger correction system in Pennsylvania. That state reportedly had 15 assaults requiring outside hospital attention in the first half of last year, compared with 256 in Maryland, the governor said.

“If you break them down, while this old facility probably has about a little less than one-twentieth of the population, it is responsible for about one-tenth of the serious assaults,” Mr. O’Malley said. He also said the prison had twice the number of assaults it should have in proportion with other facilities.

State officials said the closing will not cost jobs, and correctional officers at the Maryland House of Correction will help fill vacancies at other state prisons. The House of Correction hospital, which provides care for inmates from other correction facilities in the Jessup region, will remain open.

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