Tour of Baltimore jail prompts talk of major upgrades, possible replacement


A prisoner transport van departs from the Baltimore City Detention Center on June 6, 2013. (Patrick Semansky/AP) (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Several Maryland lawmakers who toured Baltimore’s state-run jail Thursday said the General Assembly should consider spending large sums to upgrade or even replace the antiquated facility at the center of a federal racketeering indictment.

Close to a dozen legislators serving on a special commission set up in the wake of the scandal took part in the morning visit to the Baltimore City Detention Center, where prosecutors say 13 guards helped a dangerous national gang operate a drug-trafficking and money-laundering scheme behind bars.

Upon emerging from the tour, which was closed to the media, lawmakers credited state correctional officials with making several improvements since the April indictments, including tighter controls at the entrance and a new network of digital cameras.

But several suggested that the condition of the jail itself, where construction began before the Civil War, contributed to the ease with which corrupt detainees and guards were able to coordinate their activities, including through use of smuggled cellphones.

“If you can get contraband in, it’s pretty easy to move it around the facility,” said Del. Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore), who said he was taken aback by the maze-like nature of the jail and other shortcomings. “There are terrible sight lines. You can’t see around the corner.”

Clippinger, who works as a prosecutor in Anne Arundel County, said “there’s a lot we’re going to have to do on the capital side.”

There appeared to be no consensus about how much of an investment the state should consider when lawmakers return to Annapolis in January for their annual session.

“Quite frankly, I’d like to see a new state-of-the-art facility here,” said Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. (D-Baltimore).

Mitchell said correctional officials indicated that the cost of replacing the jail would be at least $400 million. The sprawling facility, which the state took over in the 1991, houses roughly 3,000 detainees and is among the largest in the country.

Del. Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard), one of the co-chairmen of the commission, said that the cost of a wholesale replacement of the facility is “probably prohibitive.”

“It really would be in­cred­ibly difficult on multiple levels,” Guzzone said. “We’re going to keep looking at options.”

One less costly improvement that is already planned is the opening of a new dining hall. Corrections officials said they have been serving most detainees in their cells for the past 20 years.

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr. (D-Anne Arundel), the other co-chairman of the commission, said lawmakers were told that contraband has often been smuggled with the meals provided to detainees.

Prior to the tour, lawmakers were given a briefing by Corrections Secretary Gary D. Maynard in the waiting area of he visiting quarters of the jail.

He recounted the history of the detention center, which has had several additions and renovations, including a modernization of the complex in 1959.

During his presentation, which he media was invited to watch, Maynard also said he welcomed the scrutiny and suggestions of the lawmakers on the commission.

“This commission is going to be an asset,” Maynard said. “I think we’ll come back a year from now and say we were better for it.”

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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