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MCI prisoners work to make more out of life on the inside

June 14, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown



Security level: Medium and minimum

Average inmate population: 2,079

Cost per inmate per year: $24,921

Ratio of inmates to custodial staff: 4.6 to 1

Average sentence length: 195 months (More than 200 serving life sentences)

Average stay: 77 months

Racial breakdown: 67 percent black, 26 percent white, 7 percent Hispanic

HAGERSTOWN -- With a population more than three times that of the town of Sharpsburg, the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown is one of the largest -- and least visible -- operations in Washington County.

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Prison officials on June 1 opened MCI's gates to local media for a tour that provided a revealing glimpse of what goes on inside.

Prison industry

Of the nearly 2,100 inmates housed at MCI-H, a select group of about 300 hold coveted positions in the industrial-type shops run by Maryland Correctional Enterprises, Warden Roderick R. Sowers said.

This self-supporting arm of the Maryland Division of Correction manufactures dozens of products for sale at reduced prices to state and local governments and nonprofit organizations, while providing trade skills and work experience to inmates, MCE Regional Manager Gregory Haupt said.

At MCI-H, two metal shops produce products such as library shelving, trash cans and office desks, not to mention exercise cages and segregation screens destined for the prison. An upholstery shop re-covers Metro seats and upholsters furniture ranging from durable dorm couches for state universities to executive chairs for the governor's mansion. Other shops process meat, wash the prison's laundry, frame documents, and produce cardboard boxes and cleaning brushes.

The shops recently shifted from a standard five-day work week to a schedule with four, 10-hour work days. Upholstery plant manager Ron Reeves said the change increased production by 30 percent.

Shop security

In many ways, the shops function much like comparable plants in the general population, but small details remind workers they are still within the prison gates. After working all day with tools and metal, inmate workers pass through metal detectors on their way out to ensure they take none of it with them.

Meat shop knives are kept in a locked cabinet and are attached to counters with 4-foot chains while in use. Outgoing shipments sit in trucks overnight before leaving the facility to give officials time to notice if any would-be stowaways are missing from counts.

In 28 years with MCE, Haupt said he only knew of one instance of a lost tool -- a screwdriver incident he said he didn't want to talk about.

The MCE shops are different from other businesses in another way, too. While outside industry can usually cut costs by replacing human workers with increased automation, that is not always the case in prison shops. With demand for jobs high and wages a fraction of those on the outside, machines that require more labor are better than those that require less, Haupt said.

Economic effect

Prison walls and razor wire might keep inmates inside MCI-H, but they aren't enough to keep the recession out. Haupt said Maryland Correctional Enterprises expects sales to drop next fiscal year when local governments cut back on purchases due to tightened budgets.

The prison's budget, on the other hand, appears to be faring the economic storm well. State budget documents on the Maryland Department of Budget and Management Web site show a proposed fiscal year 2010 budget of $61.8 million for MCI-H, up about $500,000 from its 2009 appropriation of $61.3 million.

Of that budget, about $41.4 million, or about two-thirds, goes to salaries, wages and fringe benefits for prison employees.

Escape response

The prison tour did not take reporters past the spot where convicted murderer Kanderlario Garcia-Ramos escaped from the institution in January by scaling two fences topped with razor wire, but Sowers said the institution has made several changes in response to the escape.

Sowers said the prison added additional razor wire to the perimeter fence at the site of the escape and made adjustments to increase the visibility of that area.

The prison also changed the route used to take inmates from outlying buildings to their dining room so it does not go as close to the perimeter fence, and changed the positioning of staff during mass movements, Sowers said.

Garcia-Ramos reportedly slipped away while his unit was moving to or from the dining room for breakfast. He was apprehended five days later near the Sheetz at U.S. 40 and Md. 66 east of Hagerstown.

Four MCI-H correctional officers were suspended without pay for negligence in connection with the escape.

Upgrades planned

Sowers said the changes were an improvement, but he will feel better when a long-planned perimeter security upgrade is completed.

Because MCI-H was built almost 70 years ago -- it was begun in 1932 and completed in 1942 -- its perimeter was not designed with modern technology in mind, Sowers said.

As part of the project, the prison will replace all of its fencing, straighten out the perimeter to eliminate blind spots and switch to fencing similar to that at the newer Maryland Correctional Training Center, which has two fences of equal height and has more razor wire. The changes will also allow MCI-H to install cameras and other perimeter-monitoring technology, Sowers said.

Sowers said he hopes construction will begin on the project by 2011, but the project is not yet listed on the state's Capital Improvement Plan, which schedules projects four years out.

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