If Maryland's public safety secretary has his way, inmates would dismantle a prison the state closed four years ago.
Gary D. Maynard, the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, floated the possibility last month.
During a meeting in Annapolis with Western Maryland state delegates and senators, Maynard laid out his idea of using inmates to deconstruct the former House of Correction in Jessup.
According to Maynard, the Department of General Services — which oversees state-owned property — estimated the cost of demolishing the prison building and taking materials to a landfill at $10 million.
But if the state put out a contract using inmates to take the building apart, the cost might be about $2 million, Maynard said.
Since taking over as secretary in 2007, Maynard frequently has offered inmates as work crews for municipalities and expressed frustration that few government bodies accept.
During last month's Western Maryland delegation meeting, Maynard mentioned his idea as a way to take down the vacant prison, saying it would save money and teach practical skills to inmates.
The state closed the House of Correction in March 2007, about two months into Gov. Martin O'Malley's first term.
O'Malley and Maynard said at the time that the prison was outdated and dangerous.
The prison opened in 1878 and was one of America's oldest operating prisons, according to a 2007 Division of Correction annual report.
The report says the prison was designed for a capacity of 699, but at the time it closed, it had an average daily population of about 1,200 inmates.
The former prison is approximately 355,600 square feet, according to Division of Correction spokeswoman Erin Julius.
During the delegation meeting, Del. Susan W. Krebs, R-Carroll, told Maynard that she has talked before about using inmates to help tear down the former Henryton State Hospital in her district.
"That's a classic example of what we'd like to do," Maynard replied.
He described deconstructing as "backward building" — another way of learning the construction trade.
"If you take a door frame down, then you surely know how to put a door frame up," Maynard said.
Besides saving labor costs, he said, the state also would make money by salvaging fixtures and parts of the building.
The slate roof is valuable, Maynard said. Steel rebar from the walls could be resold.
"There's probably 15, 20 million dollars worth of copper in that building," he said.
Maynard said the state could train inmates for more specialized work, such as asbestos abatement, through an existing Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation program.
Asked last week about Maynard's idea, Alvin C. Collins, the secretary of the Department of General Services, said he hadn't heard about it.
"He hasn't talked to me about that, no, so I can't give you an opinion on it," Collins said.
He added, "I'm not necessarily opposed to it, but, you know, there are labor considerations."
At the end of the delegation meeting, Del. Andrew A. Serafini, R-Washington, asked Maynard about the possibility of inmates helping to demolish the former Washington County Hospital building on East Antietam Street.
The hospital closed in December when Meritus Medical Center opened off Robinwood Drive.
Nothing has been decided about the vacant hospital building, but the plan is to demolish it if another use isn't found by the end of this year.
At a September 2010 meeting of a task force studying the property, James Hamill, the president and CEO of Meritus Health, said a contractor estimated the cost of demolition at $3.5 million, according to minutes of the meeting.
Meritus Health, the hospital's parent company, has budgeted $3.7 million for demolition, Hamill added, according to the minutes.
Asked on Friday about the possible use of inmate labor for the demolition project, Meritus Health spokeswoman Nicole Jovel wrote in an e-mail, "If and when we move forward with demolition, we would then select a demolition company. It would be up to that demolition company to work with the state on whether or not inmates could be involved with the project."
Sharon Disque, a co-chair of the task force studying the property, wasn't sure inmates should be used to save money.
She said it's an interesting job-training opportunity, but taking apart the hospital will be a technical job with injury and liability risks.
"Given the nature of the building," she said, "dismantling would be better left to a firm that could be held responsible."
Applying the concept to the vacant prison, however, might make more sense, since the state would own the property and do the work, Disque said.
Christopher Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a nonprofit group that studies state issues, said he likes the idea of inmate chain gangs and work crews as public deterrents to crime and opportunities to develop skills.
But having inmates do jobs with large, possibly dangerous tools could be inviting disaster, he said.