Prince George's Jail, Once Hailed, Grapples With Overcrowding

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 4, 2008

When it opened two decades ago, the Prince George's County Correctional Center was heralded as a "new generation" jail. Corrections officials from across the country dropped in to tour it. In 1994, President Bill Clinton chose it as his stage to announce a national drug policy.

The jail was an almost unnaturally quiet place where inmates enjoyed endless coffee and juice, exercise bicycles and weight machines, and cable television, as long as they obeyed the rules. Although it had detractors, the facility was widely viewed as an improvement over the jail it replaced, where guards were regularly doused with urine and where rapes and violence were common.

Yet today, the jail has grown increasingly violent and is so crowded that it cannot be fully locked down. According to county auditors, the jail's population has risen by 47 percent in the past six years, more than double the authorized percentage, and union officials warn of a "retirement crisis" by June 2010, when 60 percent of officers will be eligible for retirement.

The jail is designed to accommodate inmates in two-person cells, but many of the housing units have bunk beds in common areas to hold the overflow. Such units cannot be locked down in emergencies because dozens of inmates are without a cell to be locked into, said Sgt. Curtis Knowles, president of the Prince George's Correctional Officers Association.

"If you have to go hands-on," Knowles said, referring to the act of physically restraining an inmate, "which you are often required to do, you put yourself in a bad situation."

Jails in Calvert and St. Mary's counties are also overcrowded, as many jails and prisons across the country have been for at least two decades. At one point last month, the St. Mary's County Detention Center, which has an official capacity of 245, held more than 360 inmates. And the Calvert County Detention Center, designed to hold 172 people, usually houses closer to 300.

In Prince George's, Corrections Director Alfred J. McMurray Sr. attributed the rise in the number of inmates to the growth in the county's population and the size of the police force.

When the jail opened 21 years ago, the county's population was a bit more than 600,000. As of 2006, the population was more than 841,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

County officials said steps are being taken to alleviate the overcrowding.

Vicki D. Duncan, a spokeswoman for the corrections agency, said construction is scheduled to begin in November on two housing units that will hold 192 inmates. The project, estimated to cost as much as $14 million, is expected to be completed in May 2010.

At a Jan. 24 hearing before the County Council, leaders of the correctional officers union described what they said were problems with overcrowding and physical conditions at the jail. Union officials have pointed to the kitchen as an area of particular concern. At times, they have said, the walls of the kitchen are covered with mold and mildew. The kitchen often smells of sewage, which used to back up and flood the room from time to time, the union has said.

County officials said $700,000 in kitchen renovations, including a new floor, are scheduled to be completed this year.

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