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From penal farm to prison complex

July 29, 2007|By ERIN JULIUS and KAREN HANNA

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part package of stories about the three state prisons south of Hagerstown.

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Five miles south of Hagerstown is a complex of three state prisons, their walls ringed with razor wire.

Over the years, the medium-security institutions along Roxbury Road have been the scenes of riots and, sometimes, of inmate-on-inmate homicides.

The complex, which today houses more than 6,700 inmates and provides jobs for more than 1,600 area residents, started out as a penal farm for nonviolent offenders.

In 1930, the state of Maryland bought 880 acres south of Hagers-town for farmland to be worked by men convicted of crimes classified as nonviolent. Those men grew vegetables and raised dairy and beef cattle.

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News reports at the time noted that inmates living in temporary wooden barracks built the main prison building. It was ready for occupancy in 1942.

Farming at the prison, which has been called the Maryland Correctional Institution since 1964, ended in 1968.

The Maryland Correctional Training Center, the second prison in the complex, opened in 1966 across Roxbury Road from what is now MCI.

MCTC, the largest single-compound correctional institution in Maryland, was designed to house first-time offenders.

The third prison, the Roxbury Correctional Institution, also built in campus style, opened in 1983 near MCI.

Today, about 30 percent of Maryland's inmates are housed in the three prisons in Washington County and, with about 1,700 staff positions authorized for this fiscal year, it is one of the county's largest employers.

The Division of Correction is the sixth-largest employer in Washington County, said Tim Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

Almost $160 million is budgeted for the Washington County prisons for this fiscal year, roughly $10 million more than was budgeted for fiscal year 2007, according to figures released by the Division of Correction.

Problems inside

From the very first, the prisons have seen their share of turmoil.

George Booze, the first prisoner at the penal farm, escaped in 1931 and was never recaptured.

Over the years, the turmoil took on a more violent character.

One of the more serious prison disturbances was on May 25, 1991. A fight that started between several inmates and four to six correctional officers escalated into the prison complex's most expensive riot.

Officers who rushed to the scene at MCI-H found that inmates had unlocked the cells of 600 fellow prisoners, bringing to more than 1,000 the number of inmates involved in the riot.

Officers used tear gas, shotguns loaded with buckshot and their bare hands to regain control of the prison.

"They were pounding on us. They just kept coming," a correctional officer was quoted as saying after the disturbance.

"I felt like a piece of meat. We realized right away that it was for real, they weren't just playing around this time. They meant to kill us and if they had been a little more organized, there would have been dead officers," he said.

A dozen correctional officers and 44 inmates were hurt in the riot, and it cost about $1.3 million to clean up and repair the prison afterward.

Gangs and staffing

Depending on whom you ask, such things as continued overcrowding, gangs and inadequate staffing levels are blamed for current problems at the prisons.

Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said he plans to tackle gang activity as a major initiative. Contraband also is an area of concern, and he said he plans to update search procedures and make them more consistent, Maynard said.

Larry Kump, president of the noncustody employees chapter of Maryland Correctional Employees Association, said he saw overcrowding as a major factor involved in violence.

"A lot of inmate-on-inmate violence comes from double-celling," Kump said. "Prisons would be a lot easier to manage single-cell."

But, Kump said, making space for each inmate to have his own cell would mean doubling the prison system's capital budget.

In the early 1980s, MCI-H was under federal court order to reduce the population of its main building to 617 inmates. The prison at the time had 617 cells, each 6 feet by 9 feet.

Now, most inmates live with at least one cellmate. To accommodate more inmates, the prisons use nontraditional housing, including open housing for dozens of inmates in Quonset hut-type buildings at MCTC and in the basement at MCI-H.

Sue Esty, assistant director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees - Maryland, which represents correctional officers, said staff cuts and poor communication between employees and administration have soured morale and compromised safety in Maryland's prisons.

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