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Detention center running out of room

September 29, 2007|By ERIN JULIUS

Some of the men being held at the Washington County Detention Center aren't locked in cells, but sleep on bunk beds in an open section of the jail's housing units.

At lunchtime, men balance food trays on their beds.

More than 400 inmates, both those convicted and those awaiting their day in court, share space in the jail off Western Maryland Parkway. Within those walls, men serving time for driving under the influence do their time alongside men charged with murder.

Women are housed in a separate area.

The jail is run by the Washington County Sheriff's Department, and 92 correctional deputies, including two recent hires, maintain control of the facility. Deputies work in three shifts, and to have sufficient personnel on each shift to staff all of the jail's security posts and to operate its programs requires paying overtime, said Capt. Rick Blair, administrative captain.

"We are not presently adequately staffed," Sheriff Douglas Mullendore said.

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Mullendore did not want to release the number of deputies who work each shift, citing security concerns.

"We're usually pretty badly outnumbered by the inmate population," Blair said.

The jail is almost, but not quite, fully staffed based on the number of positions authorized by the Washington County Commissioners, Blair said. Hiring and retaining employees is a challenge, he said.

"People would rather have a trade or even ring a cash register than be a correctional officer," he said.

On Sept. 19, there were 415 inmates in the Washington County Detention Center, which has 411 beds that are meant for the long-term housing of inmates. The facility is rated for a maximum of 434 prisoners, with 363 beds for men and 71 beds for women.

Taxpayers paid $57.74 per day in 2006 to house each inmate doing time in the jail. Inmates housed in the jail usually serve less than 18 months in the facility, Blair said.

For men serving time in maximum security - which is nearly all of the inmates - there are 311 beds available.

Some of the inmates living in the open common area on rows of bunks lined against the wall don't like the idea of open-air housing. They would prefer the privacy of a cell.

Close quarters

The jail's staff is hoping there is no need to get even more creative with housing arrangements.

"We're trying desperately not to use (the gym) as a housing unit," Blair said as he stood on scuffed concrete in the jail's stuffy gym

At one point in the 1990s, the gym was used briefly as a housing unit, Blair said.

Randall Shoemaker, 36, doesn't live on "the beach" - the term inmates use for the common living space - and doesn't want to.

"These guys are out, I don't find that very safe," said Shoemaker, who was serving time on a driving under the influence charge.

Shoemaker lives in a minimum-security room that has a door that doesn't lock. The area is for short-timers and trusties who have demonstrated they are not security risks.

Thirty-six beds are arranged in space meant for 30 beds in the minimum-security area, Blair said.

Deputy 1st Class Steve Greathead, 49, who has worked at the detention center for more than 16 years, agreed that deputies are outnumbered.

Keeping watch

Staffing is a problem. For instance, in the control centers that overlook two housing units, one deputy watches 160 inmates, Greathead said.

"Too many inmates for one person to keep an eye on," he said.

In one housing unit, known as E pod, a deputy sits at a desk overseeing the entire unit. Direct supervision is the ideal situation, Mullendore said.

"A correctional officer that works on the pod is much more aware of what's going on in that housing unit than when you have somebody in a control center that doesn't have direct contact," he said.

E pod was chosen for direct contact supervision because a lot of the inmates who are held there go to jobs or participate in programs during the day, so there is more movement and more need for supervision, Blair said.

Deputies try to limit mass movement, commonly the most risky time in a correctional institution, Blair said. Inmates are liable to get out of control when they're moving from one secured area to another, he said.

"Movement is always an issue," Blair said.

To limit movement, the men take their meals inside their housing units. All of the inmates are let out of the cells, and food trays are distributed in the common area. Most eat at one of several metal tables bolted to the floor. Some balance food trays on top of their bunks.

Tension in the air

Timothy Sweitzer, 41, who was awaiting sentencing on a forgery charge, said inmates are tense when they don't get to move around.

"Everybody is bottled up," he said.

In the preceding three weeks, Sweitzer had been outside one time, and that was for 20 minutes, he said.

Inmate William Norman, who was awaiting trial on a charge of running a common nuisance, said he thinks the anxiety is palpable.

"There's tension in the air because of the crowdedness," said Norman, 51.

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