A Maryland legislative commission on Wednesday endorsed a 10-year, $533 million plan to replace the antiquated Baltimore jail complex where more than two dozen guards were accused of aiding a dangerous prison gang in a widespread corruption scandal this year.
The recommendation was among 18 proposals that the panel voted to forward to the full legislature with the hope of preventing the kind of drug- and money-laundering conspiracies that are alleged to have taken place at the Baltimore City Detention Center.
Other proposals include imposing tougher penalties for cellphone smuggling, subjecting all applicants for correctional officer jobs to polygraph tests, and spending about $6 million a year to beef up staffing at the state-run Baltimore jail and at prisons around the state.
Members of the commission said other recommendations are ultimately more important than replacing the facility itself, which was built before the Civil War. But given the tremendous expense, the proposal is certain to generate debate.
“It will take a level of education,” said Del. Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard), co-chairman of the 12-member legislative commission. “It’s a much easier sell to have new schools, and rightfully so, but we have multiple problems, multiple challenges.”
A report drafted by the commission noted that although the jail has undergone 11 renovations since 1859, it remains sorely lacking in several respects. Those include plumbing failures, broken elevators, bug and rodent infestations, and mold.
Moreover, the design of the facility has contributed to its problems, commission members said. There are poor sightlines for guards, which make assaults more likely. And other features, such as cells with bars, make it easier to smuggle contraband within the jail. About 3,000 inmates and detainees are housed there and at other facilities that are part of the complex.
The replacement plan, which would unfold on the same site in Baltimore over a decade, was originally developed by state corrections officials and submitted to the legislature in June. Guzzone said the commission is hopeful that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and whoever succeeds him after next year’s election will commit to its funding.
Nina Smith, a spokeswoman for O’Malley, said the governor was in the process of developing next year’s budget proposal and was not prepared to discuss specific proposals.
The commission was set up after the federal indictments in the spring of 13 correctional officers as well as leaders of the Black Guerrilla Family gang at the detention center. Federal grand jury indictments unsealed last month charged 14 more current and former guards. Prosecutors have said that the gang essentially took over the jail and that its leader impregnated four of the correctional officers.
The commission was tasked with making recommendations specific to the Baltimore jail as well as to the state prison system, both of which were overseen by corrections Secretary Gary D. Maynard.
Maynard, who was heavily recruited by O’Malley when his first term began in 2007, announced his resignation Tuesday and appeared at the commission meeting Wednesday. O’Malley made a brief appearance as well, praising Maynard for his efforts in trying to turn around a system that was “in a far worse state than most of our citizens understood” when Maynard arrived.
The commission took several steps Wednesday related to the smuggling of cellphones, which its report noted are used by inmates “to plan prison assaults, escapes and riots” as well as to coordinate drug deals, gang activity and homicides outside prison walls.
Lawmakers backed off a draft proposal to elevate the crime of smuggling a cellphone into a correctional facility from a misdemeanor to a felony, in part because felons can have a more difficult time getting a job. But the commission did endorse stiffer penalties for inmates and guards who do so.
The commission also endorsed expanding cellphone-blocking technology to more Maryland correctional facilities.
The recommendation to subject job applicants to polygraphs was cast as a way to avoid hiring correctional officers with gang affiliations looking to infiltrate the Baltimore jail and prisons.
The commission also recommended that the corrections department should consider putting full-body scanners at each correctional facility. That proposal has met some resistance from the department, whose leaders contend that it is very costly and that dogs can be just as effective at identifying contraband.
Among the areas the commission chose not to address was correctional officers’ salaries, which start at $36,000 a year. Some lawmakers on the commission argued that those should be raised to attract more-qualified individuals and to reward those who perform dangerous jobs.