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Prison project, Cushwa's new job offer a chance for progress

January 31, 2007|by BOB MAGINNIS

In the first budget of his gubernatorial term, Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed money for two elementary schools and a central booking facility here.

O'Malley's fiscal 2008 budget also provides cash for a new prison housing unit at the Maryland Correctional Training Center - and the opportunity to get the new administration to address two issues related to the prison complex here.

The new housing unit and support area for the Maryland Correctional Training Center is listed at $32.6 million.

The unit would hold 384 inmates, housed two to a cell. But that doesn't necessarily mean an increase in inmates at MCTC, located south of Hagerstown.

During a tour of the prisons, new state legislators were told that MCTC now houses 400 inmates in Quonset huts, prefabricated shelters not intended to be permanent housing.


But if huts or other temporary type housing have been used before, they might be again in the future. I strongly suggest that Washington County's General Assembly delegation seek a cap on the number of inmates at MCTC, for several reasons.

Every increase in the number of inmates means a potential increase in the number of criminal cases that will be handled by the Washington County courts.

Although there was a move in 2001 to get the state to pay for those trials, the cost of prosecuting inmates from local state prisons who are charged with crimes is paid for through the Washington County State's Attorney's budget.

And how much does that cost on an annual basis?

It's unknown now, according to State's Attorney Charles Strong Jr., because his office doesn't track those cases and their costs separately.

That tracking will begin in the next fiscal year, Strong said this week.

Capital cases such as that of Brandon Morris, accused in the death of Correctional Officer Jeffery Wroten, are the most costly, Strong said. In that case, there will be the added expense of traveling to Howard County, because Judge Frederick C. Wright III granted Morris a change of venue in September.

Whether costs will increase of not will depend on whether the new unit is adequately staffed, Strong said.

The second reason that delegation members should raise the red flag is an issue I've been writing about for 10 years - the fact that some ex-offenders from the local prison complex don't go back to the jurisdictions where they lived before being sentenced.

There are a variety of reasons for that. One is that an inmate who is on "mandatory release" and has done all his time, minus any "good time" earned is discharged with far fewer conditions than someone who is paroled.

State officials attempted to address this in 1998, when Maryland Corrections Commissioner Richard A. Lanham Sr. sent a memo to all state wardens that said the following would happen when a mandatory-release inmate left the prison system:

A bus ticket would be purchased in advance for the inmate.

Prison officials would take that person to the bus station and watch him board the bus.

The person would have to report no later than 10 a.m. the next business day to the parole and probation office in the jurisdiction where the individual was sentenced.

There was a catch, however. Patricia Cushwa, then chairwoman of Maryland's State Parole Commission, said that yes, an inmate could report to the parole office where he was sentenced, then travel back here to live.

Over the years, police have told me that living here is attractive to some ex-offenders because of the area's large network of social services or because their families have moved here, which allows inmates to say they have local ties.

The delegation has an opportunity to get some traction on both of the issues now, because Cushwa is on O'Malley's transition team.

When she was named to the post in November, Rick Abbruzzese, communications director for the transition team, said her expertise in parole and probation made her the right pick for the team.

For her part, Cushwa said, "I truly expect I will have some say in the policy" developed for the Division of Correction.

As former County Commissioner Paul Swartz said on another issue, you don't get anything if you don't ask for it. It's time for the delegation to ask Cushwa for her help in getting some local prosecution costs paid and in encouraging ex-offenders to go home after they've done their time.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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