Maynard has prisons on right track

August 27, 2011|By TIM ROWLAND

Police fight crime in the streets, but it can also be battled in administrative offices far from the crime scene by people who never carry a gun or pick up a badge. So when you read that crime in Maryland dropped 6.3 percent in 2010 to an all-time low, give at least some credit to the people who oversee the state's prisons.

Prison philosophy in Maryland, and nationally, has come a long way in 15 years. It's had to, given the staggering expense of housing inmates, and relative failure to keep them from coming back once they had been released. So prisons are going to have to become smaller, more productive, or both.

Today, Maryland's prisons are not only keeping the streets safer, they're becoming stalwarts in industrial recycling, bolstering sites of historic and ecological significance, and teaching prisoners skills that might actually be in high demand upon their release.

Much of the direction at state prisons is coming from the public safety and correctional division's outside-the-box-thinking secretary, Gary Maynard — famous for asking local governments to name their ugliest, messiest problem and then volunteering to have his prison crews clean it up.

Demolishing the former House of Correction in Jessup, which was slated to cost $11 million, might instead cost less than half that, because the state has arranged for inmates to do the labor and share in the revenue from recycling steel prison bars and copper pipe. A million bricks that were to have been landfilled will be recycled. Crushed concrete will be strategically dumped into the Chesapeake Bay to provide homes for breeding oysters. At the same time, inmates will be taught valuable skills they can use upon their release, such as lead paint and asbestos abatement.

Certainly, there is a new attitude afoot from the '90s, when all you heard about on the correctional end were the buzz-phrases "tough on crime," "mandatory sentencing" and "three strikes and you're out."

Blind warehousing of human beings might have helped out a few politicians' re-election chances, but it proved to be unaffordable. But as much as he promotes inmate training, Maynard takes a dim view of, as California has been forced to do, capping inmate populations and releasing prisoners until that cap is reached.

In Maryland, the legislature is asking Maynard to draw up a proposal for capping the prison population at 21,000, which would mean the immediate release of 1,000 (about one prison's worth of) inmates.

In a $1.2 billion industry, that would amount to real savings. Yet Maynard is loath to release prisoners unless they've earned it. The better way, he believes, is to teach those who are teachable — give them real-world job and social skills that they need to succeed on the outside.

On the other end of the scale are the unteachables — the ones for whom crime is the only business they care to know. These, Maynard watches like a hawk.

Science and technology certainly deserve some of the credit for declining crime rates, and Maryland has engaged in a number of initiatives that consolidate and disseminate information about each criminal, making it available to each and every law enforcement officer on the street, regardless of jurisdiction.

Through a carefully comprised set of criteria (was the crime violent, was a gun used, number of repeat offenses, etc.) the DOC can be pretty sure which felons will continue to cause problems after they have served their sentences and are released. The parole officer will give them no benefit of the doubt — no excuses for missing appointments or failing to adhere with state requirements.

This is corrections the way it should be done — smart and efficient, and taking advantage of the latest technology and insights into behavior patterns.

This reduces prison population the right way, by requiring inmates to earn privileges (and eventually a free, upstanding life of their own), both inside and out. There are no freebies, and those who do not play by the rules get no breaks.

In short, those who can be rehabilitated have a reasonable expectation of getting out; those who cannot be rehabilitated remain behind bars where they belong.

Lawmakers across the country have gotten themselves into this prison overpopulation mess by, as they so often do, oversimplifying complex issues to suit their re-election chances. Now, they face two choices — they can open the prison doors wholesale, as they are doing in California, or they can let the professionals, when good ones such as Maynard are found, do the job they're paid to do.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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