In Surprise Move, Md. Closes Jessup Prison, Transfers Inmates

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 19, 2007

Operating with extraordinary secrecy, Maryland corrections officials over the past several weeks transferred all 850 inmates out of the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, effectively closing the notoriously violent 129-year-old maximum-security prison and ending its decades-long history of riots, fights, escapes and attacks on correctional officers.

Fearful that leaked news of the closure could spark violence in the prison's final days, officials loaded inmates onto buses by the dozens for transfer, some under the cover of night. Prisoners were not told of their destinations until after leaving. Only five of the corrections secretary's 12 top aides were informed of the plan, and some only in the past week.

Even the officers who patrolled the prison were told of the change only on Friday. They were told they all had jobs but that as of today the prison they knew as "the Cut" was shutting down.

"All of us knew that if we told someone who didn't have a need to know and word got out, that would potentially be the person to get someone killed," said Gary D. Maynard, secretary of public safety and correctional services.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) will officially announce today that the prison is closed. O'Malley's decision and the inmate transfers were first reported in yesterday's Baltimore Sun.

Corrections officials, union leaders and lawmakers have pushed for the closure of the House of Correction for years because its design is outdated and dangerous. But it took Maynard, who became head of corrections in January, one look to decide that change was needed immediately.

Officials had decided to convert the facility from maximum to minimum security after a correctional officer was killed in July, the first inside a Maryland prison since 1984.

Maynard toured the prison Feb. 6, days after arriving in Maryland from Iowa, where he was the top correctional official. Maynard said he was so disturbed by what he saw that the next day he advised the governor that he would accomplish the conversion to minimum security in 30 days, rather than up to three years, as had been planned.

Then a guard was stabbed March 2. Although the officer survived, Maynard recommended that O'Malley close the facility.

"I had never seen an institution that housed maximum-security inmates that bad," he said. "You could not deal with it in any other way than to deal with it as quickly and decisively as possible."

The red-brick complex's antiquated design was more suited to theories of prison management in place when it first opened in 1878 than to those of the 21st century. Tight corners and narrow staircases made for blind spots that were dangerous for correctional officers to patrol. Screened hallways forced officers to walk long distances within arm's reach of inmates. Thick walls prevented radio communication in some areas. Inmates were able to jimmy outdated locks, allowing some to leave their cells unnoticed.

"Of all the prisons in the Maryland system, the House of Correction is by far the most dangerous," said Sue Esty, legislative director for Council 92 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents corrections officers. "This is huge."

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Maryland House of Correction
Maryland House of Correction
By Mary Kate Cannistra, The Washington Post - March 19, 2007
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