Old prisons, prison policy, need to go

July 26, 2008

To the editor:

On Aug. 31, 1954, The Baltimore Sun reported, "Old pen building to be demolished." The original building of the Maryland Penitentiary, a creaky, firetrap, 143 years old, was to be replaced with an $849,263 prisoners' hospital. This hospital still stands today and is where Maryland executes its death row inmates.

The original structure, built in 1811, was used as an administration building and the warden's home. In its basement, food was cooked over large open fireplaces. Rebellious inmates were "cuffed" or lifted up by their arms and lashed with a cat-o-nine tails in the same area. This practice of lashing rebellious inmates continued until 1905, when a physician discovered that the blood of one victim, remaining on the cords of the lash, infected succeeding inmates with syphilis.

Prison life, although grim now, was a lot more hideous and stern some 200 years ago. The inmates were housed in small individual cells, which almost could be called dungeons. Inmates had to crouch to get inside the cell; once inside there was barely enough room to stand up or lie down. The only means of ventilation and light came through mere 6-inch slits in the wall.


Included in this news article was a comment from then Warden Pepersack, "Prisoners rarely were allowed out of their cells in the early days. Meals were served and eaten in the cells. Guards constantly patrolled the cells on rickety, 20-inch-wide walkways." In a report on the penitentiary to the Maryland General Assembly in the 1800s, such facilities were described in glowing terms.

The news article also reported the death of the first prisoner to enter the institution in 1811, Bob Butler. Warden Pepersack stated that Bob Butler was a prisoner for 44 years and on Oct. 24, 1855, he died and was buried on the penitentiary grounds.

Warden Pepersack had no idea how many prisoners were buried on the institution's grounds, but stated 37,639 people had served time in the institution since Butler's day, and many also died there.

Over the years, the clutter of obsolete 19th-century buildings cramping the penitentiary's inner yard were torn down. New buildings were constructed along the perimeter incorporating advanced ideas in penology. One such building was the new dining hall built in 1975. Prior to its construction, inmates sat at long, narrow tables, all facing in one direction to discourage communication (the Auburn System).

A lot of changes have taken place over the years; many of them for the good. Penitentiaries and prisons are no longer places of pure punishment.

On the other side: the United States is the "world's leading prison state." (The Boston Globe) With 2.3 million people - one out of every 100 adult Americans - now languish behind bars. Per capita, our rate of imprisonment easily exceeds that of Russia, is six times that of China and seven times that of Germany and France.

We've made great strives in our penal system, physically, with improvements of conditions and construction of buildings. However, we cannot build our way out of this situation by incarcerating more of our general population. More and better prisons are not the answer.

Economically we cannot afford them. Just recently, April 5, 2008, the Maryland Division of Correction (DOC) announced it had to place 200 prisoners from the DOC in the gymnasium at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown (MCI-H), because it had no place else to incarcerate these prisoners. Also, the budget to build housing for prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Training Center (MCTC) was cut from $12.5 million to $10.5 million due to the economy of the State of Maryland.

It's more productive and economical for the citizens of Maryland and throughout the United States, to have our penal system invest in programs, treatment, education and the psychological field of reform for our prison population. That way we might reduce the number of prisoners who keep returning to prison, which is at a staggering 52 percent. Are we lacking in the educational and psychological fields of reform? That is the question that must be answered.

Like the "Old pen building being demolished," after some 143 years - a creaky, firetrap - maybe our present system of getting tough on crime is also a "creaky, firetrap" and needs more thought.

Paul H. Inskeep

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