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O'Malley pleased that prison is closed

March 19, 2007

From staff and wire reports

An unknown number of inmates were transferred to prisons in Hagerstown after Gov. Martin O'Malley closed the maximum-security Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, a Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman said.

Inmates were placed "properly, where they belonged," according to security classifications, spokesman Mark Vernarelli said. "This was not done helter-skelter, willy-nilly," he said.

The House of Correction did house inmates who were not classified as maximum security, Vernarelli said. He said no maximum-security prisoners were sent to Hagerstown.

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Maximum-security inmates would not be housed in the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown, Maryland Correctional Training Center or the Roxbury Correction Institution, which are medium or minimum-security institutions, he said.

"Every single bed was analyzed for who would belong in that bed," said Vernarelli, who called the transfer of prisoners a "Herculean effort."

The 129-year-old Maryland House of Correction has long been troubled by violence. A guard and three inmates were killed there last year in separate attacks, and another correctional officer was stabbed earlier this month.

"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," O'Malley said as he announced the closure at a news conference inside the prison.

Correctional officers are being reassigned from the House of Correction, but none are expected to be transferred as far west as Hagerstown, said Maj. Priscilla Doggett, a Division of Correction spokeswoman.

Attorneys 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, 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," Meehan said.

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

"It was absolutely dangerous," Ralph said. "If you didn't have fear with you, something was wrong."

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

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 ready to pounce and stab.

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

The state moved 655 inmates in the prison's last week of operation. The state transferred 97 inmates considered to be the most disruptive to federal prisons around the country and to state prisons in Virginia and Kentucky. Other inmates were moved to prisons in Baltimore, Cumberland, Md., Hagerstown and Westover, on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

While conceding Maryland's correctional system still has a long way to go, 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, O'Malley compared the number of serious assaults in Maryland's system to the much-larger correction system in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania 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," O'Malley said.

State officials said the closing will not result in lost 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.

Staff writer Erin Julius contributed to this story.

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