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New system will alert Marylanders about state prison escapes

October 28, 2009|By BRIDGET DiCOSMO

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Residents who live near the state prison complex south of Hagerstown can now receive electronic messages that warn them of an inmate escape.

The new alert system, which eventually will phase out the use of a steam whistle siren in Washington County and a siren in Jessup, Md., is designed to notify people by text message, phone and e-mail.

Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services launched the system statewide Wednesday morning at the complex on Roxbury Road.

Spurred in part by a recent escape from the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown, the new communication system proved to be a less-costly and potentially more-efficient alternative to relying on sirens, prison officials said.

"This is where we should be in 2009. Whistles and sirens aren't going to do it anymore," Division of Correction Commissioner J. Michael Stouffer said.

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The system will cost the state a $7,500 yearly service fee, plus an additional 9 cents per minute surcharge should 10,000 phone minutes per year be exceeded.

The cost is less than a quarter of what the state pays to maintain and make regular repairs to the Jessup siren, said Jay Miller, information and technology manager for the Division of Correction.

The system is capable of notifying 15,000 people by phone within one minute, Miller said.

Users are responsible for setting up their own notification on the Web site's online services feature and for keeping their contact information updated, Miller said.

During a test of the system Wednesday morning, Miller sent a brief description of a hypothetical escaped inmate to a handful of people who knew it was not a real escape.

On Jan. 17, convicted murderer Kandelario Garcia-Ramos scaled two fences topped with razor wire at the medium-security MCI. He was at large for five days before being apprehended within miles of the prison.

The escape cast serious doubt on the effectiveness of the siren system.

Some residents who lived near the prison complex at the time told the Herald-Mail they didn't hear the siren that sounded when Garcia-Ramos escaped and that they weren't aware a convicted murderer was loose in the community.

On Sept. 4, two inmates who were painting a fence on a work detail at the Maryland Correctional Training Center prerelease building on Roxbury Road walked away, prison officials have said. They were found 65 miles away in a Howard County, Md., motel room.

Over-the-fence escapes are extremely rare, Division of Correction spokesman Mark Vernarelli said.

The system likely will be used in that type of situation, not for instances in which an inmate on work-release leaves the custody of corrections officers, Vernarelli said. In addition, the siren near Hagerstown will be used for as long as it continues to operate, but it probably will not be replaced.

Cooperation between legislators and prison officials helped push along the implementation of the new system, Stouffer said.

In early October, Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, expressed concern in a letter to Stouffer, urging the administration to move forward on the system because the existing situation presented a public safety issue.

"We knew we had a problem, and our legislators brought that to our attention," Stouffer said.

Researching available community alert programs and setting up the one chosen caused delays in implementing the new system, Vernarelli said.

Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, said he expects the new system to result in "huge savings" for the state.

Garcia-Ramos was the first prisoner to escape from a medium or maximum-security prison in Maryland in six years, Vernarelli said.

Stouffer said final decisions on some of the finer points of how the system will be used, such as exactly how much information will be provided to users, likely would be made Monday.

To register



Anyone wanting to register for the prison notification system may do so by visiting www.dpscs.state.md.us. The link to the escape alert system is on the right side of the Web page under online services.

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