The eight members of the legislative subcommittee had barely settled into their chairs when Del. Charles Blumenthal offered the first cut in the proposed $149 million budget for Maryland's Corrections and Public Safety Department.
"I'd offer a motion to remove the secretary's position," joked the Prince George's County Democrat, as his colleagues snickered and guffawed at the novel suggestion to remove Corrections Secretary Gordon Kamka from the state scene.
"That'll go," rejoined Del. R. Charles Avara. "I'll second it."
Of all the legislative panels in Annapolis, few have been the source of more gallows humor, political sniping and face-to-face hostility than this House Appropriations subcommittee, which for the past three years has been the financial and philosophical battleground for Maryland's ancient and overcrowed prisons.
So bloody and bitter are the fights in the subcommittee that one veteran lawmaker has referred to it as "The Cut" -- the same nickname inmates have given the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, where knifings are of the literal variety.
It is into this scarred and sensitive group that Gordon Kamka strode this session, bringing with him a new corrections philosophy, a new plan for a new prison, and a demeanor that his friends call feisty and self-assured and his enemies call arrogant.
In the 14 months since he was named the first member of Gov. Harry Hughes' cabinet, Kamka has blustered and argued with unfriendly legislators, put them down or been put down by them, and disagreed with them on such key questions as how many beds Maryland's prison system has, what types of prisoners occupy that space and where those prisoners should be housed in the future.
In the process, the distinctions between Kamka's legislative objectives and the blunt style he uses in pursuing them have been blurred. As a result, his goals of reshaping the state's correctional system -- and complying with a court-ordered deadline to end double-occupancy of cells in Maryland prisons -- are in danger of falling victim to the climate of hostility in the legislature.
"At this point, his relationship [which the legislature] doesn't seem to be too great," said Del. Tyras B. (Buck) Athey, a Democrat fond of understatement. Athey happens to chair the House Ways and Means Committee and his home district includes the Jessup area of Anne Arundel County, not far from the site of Kamka's proposed new 500-bed prison.
"I can't be critical of Gordon in one sense -- he's sincere, he believes what he's doing," added Athey. "He's so sincere he's going down the road with his eyes closed."
"I think the problem is that it's urgent to get something done," said Del. Frank Robey, the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that went to work on Kamka's budget Friday. "The court order (to ease overcrowding in state prisons this year) is like a ticking time bomb . . . There's a job that needs to be done," Robey added.
Kamka's defenders, however maintained that no one could hope to offer such a liberal corrections plan to a conservative group of legislators -- one of Kamka's most vitriolic foes is a former narcotics detective and brother of a high-ranking Baltimore police official -- and expect a hearts-and-flowers reception.
"Gordon happens to be the messenger for the governor in this case," said Hughes' staff director, Ejner J. Johnson. "I think there's a desire to shoot the messenger."
At this press conference last week, the governor came to the defense of his beleaguered corrections secretary, offering strong support for Kamka's goal while sidestepping a question about his style.
"I think he's one of the best correctional people in the country," Hughes said. ". . . I support him 100 percent in his efforts."
Asked if he would give Kamka advice on getting along with lawmakers, Hughes said, "Well, I guess I have talked to him about it on occasion as people have talked with me on occasion about how maybe I could improve my relationship with the legislatures."
When Kamka took office, prisons were already an explosive subject in Annapolis. The state was facing a May 1978, U.S. District Court order to end the doubling up of inmates in cells. The state attorney general's office had managed to win an extension of the deadline to July 1, 1980, but this had not solved the uncomfortable question of which legislators would be forced to accept a new prison in their home districts.
Of the approximately 8,370 prisoners in Maryland, about 1,260 inmates now are doubled up in cells built for one. New facilities are already under construction to expand the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore and the medium security House of Correction in Jessup, where 30 prisoners broke out last Aug. 22, but even these additions alone will not solve the problems.
The prison question has had an even more tangled history in the legislature, during the tenure of three governors. Since 1977, two protracted battles were fought -- one to build a large 890-bed facility at the Continental Can site in East Baltimore and another a year later to scrap that plan and build a prison at Fort Armistead, not far from the Baltimore City-Anne Arundel County line.
Then, as one legislative leader tells it, "A new governor, Hughes, comes along and says, 'No, we don't need a prison, we don't want to use either (site),' and then this year he comes along and says, 'Well, we do need another prison and now we're going to put it at Jessup.' I think the legislature is fed up."
The legislature, however, has the final say on these issues. Hughes and Kamka are proposing a plan to cut down the number of prisoners in the dungeon-line, century-old state institution by building more community-based rehabilitation facilities and by liberizing parole policies. But they must win legislative approval of the funds for key elements in this newly refined plan:
The $9.95 million appropriation for building five community adult rehabilitation centers.
The $39.7 million appropriation for their newly proposed 500-bed, medium-security prison in the Jessup area.
The $7.3 million appropriation for a 250-bed, minimum-security facility in Baltimore.
To complicate matters, the money for the community centers depends on a funding-formula bill now before the Ways and Means Committee -- a committee chaired by Del. Athey, who is still smoldering over Kamka's selection of his Jessup neighborhood to house yet another prison.
According to Robey whose subcommittee has the first say on most of these issues, Kamka is well aware of the philosophical differences between himself and legislators whose constituents want criminals locked up and forgotten.
"He comes in in a defensive posture. As a result he tends to give short, curt, and condescending-appearing answers. I don't think he's that kind of individual, but he's done it in this room," said Robey, gesturing to the hearing room where he sat.
Amont Robey's colleagues on the subcommittee, Dels. Avara, Louis L. Depazo (D-Baltimore County), and Paul Muldowney (D-Washington) have been especially harsh in their questioning of Kamka. Avara, in particular, questions many of Kamka's statistics, from Maryland's incarceration rate -- which the lawmaker says Kamka overstates -- to the number of beds in state institutions.
Feelings have run so high that some subcommittee members have privately questioned in Kamka was trying to win their chairman's good graces by taking Robey -- along with two other legislators and other state officials -- on a tour of European prisons last summer and by hiring one of Robey's aides as the legislative liaison for the correctional services department.
Yesterday, Robey fimly denied that the summer trip and the hiring had changed his feelings about corrections issues.Except, he said he feels just a little more urgency this year -- and a little more worried that the spoken and unspoken dislike for Kamka may sabotage the entire effort to correct the state's prison problems.
Even some members of the governor's staff have privately expressed concern about Kamka's often cocky approach to people. However, at a recent legislative hearing, Kamka himself, red-faced but calm, conceded to lawmakers that he would have to defer to their wishes on his pet projects.
"The thing that disturbs me," Del. Robey said, "is that personalities are getting in the way of doing a job . . . and I'm talking about everyone involved."