Jessup's Doors Slam Shut for Good
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley strolled confidently alongside a three-story-tall bank of prison cells, each barely large enough to contain the rusting metal bed frame attached to the wall, the uncovered toilet and the tiny sink.
For decades, prisoners packed into these 6-by-9-foot spaces had been responsible for attacks on one another and on the officers guarding them. But yesterday, at O'Malley's order, the House of Correction at Jessup was finally empty.
"We're better than this as a people," O'Malley (D) said as he formally closed the 129-year-old maximum-security prison. "Today's a historic day because our state government . . . is facing up to its own responsibility. . . . For years and years, this facility, which predates Alcatraz, has been functionally obsolete."
The event, which drew a throng of reporters, had a celebratory feel as the new governor and his correctional services secretary, Gary D. Maynard, recounted the five weeks of secrecy that led to the last of the prison's 842 inmates being transferred to other facilities Saturday.
Since his November election, O'Malley has repeatedly said that the state's troubled prison system is among the biggest challenges he faces. Shuttering the House of Correction, widely considered Maryland's most dangerous, was "step one," O'Malley said yesterday, adding that "we have many more steps to take."
Three inmates and one correctional officer were killed last year at an institution that long ago became known as "the Cut."
Criticism of the administration's swift move was muted yesterday, although some Republicans raised concerns about the level of secrecy involved and inmate advocates said the hasty transfers could cause confusion for families.
"I understand the concerns raised with regard to security, but in general, I don't want to see a pattern of conduct develop where decisions are made and then announced after the fact," said House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert).
Mary Ann Saar, correctional services secretary under former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), praised the bold move by the new administration.
"I think it's about time," Saar said. "They worked very hard at it, and I think they deserve credit for it."
Prison officials explained that the stacked cells were among the antiquated features that made the House of Correction dangerous.
O'Malley said the metal catwalks that ran along the exterior of the cells were a source of danger because inmates could hear officers coming before the officers could see into their cell.