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Federal orders on Md. prisons lifted

March 20, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

Maryland has regained full control over four prisons - including two in Washington County - that were under federal supervision for more than 14 years, state prison officials said.

Federal court orders that capped the prison population and kept tabs on the daily operations were lifted after the state agreed to obey constitutional stipulations, said Leonard Sipes, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

"It's not going to change the day-to-day operations at the prisons, but what it provides us with is the flexibility of management without consulting with federal courts," Sipes said. "It's extraordinarily good news."

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The Maryland Correctional Institution and the Maryland Correctional Training Center, both near Hagerstown, as well as the Maryland Penitentiary and the Maryland House of Correction, came under federal oversight in the 1980s.

The oversight resulted from lawsuits filed as early as 1977 by Maryland Penitentiary inmates, who alleged illegal confinement, overcrowding and fire-safety violations, among other things.

The federal government set population caps and began monitoring things like health care, dietary guidelines and recreation.

Jon Galley, who was commissioner of corrections from 1981 to 1984 and spent stints at MCI and MCTC, said the consent decrees were an administrative "nightmare." Although they addressed legitimate concerns, he said employees often had to work full time just to keep up with the paperwork that had to be followed.

"I think the Division of Corrections ought to thank its lucky stars that they've been lifted," he said. "We lived with those things for nearly 20 years. They're just like a backache. They never go away, seemingly."

Galley was commissioner in 1983 when federal courts set guidelines at MCI governing noise levels, health care, program activities, access to courts and other living conditions. The consent decrees at MCTC covered programming and education for inmates.

The state has long maintained the oversight is unnecessary and no prisoners are deprived of their constitutional rights.

"We could have been better served by fighting a little harder," Galley said.

MCI Warden Lloyd C. Waters said he is happy the consent decrees have been lifted, but added operation will not change.

"My philosophy is to run the most efficient prison I can," he said. "That's what I've always done. I'm going to do that whether there's a consent degree or not."

To end the oversight, the state agreed to abide by rules prohibiting "cruel and unusual punishment" outlined in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to a release from the corrections department.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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