Faced with strident legislative opposition to his corrections policies, Gov. Harry Hughes today backed away from his stated aim of building no new prisons and proposed the construction of a new 500-bed facility in the neighborhood of the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore.
"There has been a concern expressed by the legislature that we need additional facilities," Hughes said at a press briefing this afternoon."I think that concern is somewhat justified . . . We are satisfied an additional facility is needed."
The governor also cautioned that "I in no way interpret this to mean that we're veering away from our long-term correctional goals."
Several of his aides agreed after Hughes' announcement that the new prison proposal would make it easier for the remainder of the governor's corrections proposals to win approval from a legislature skeptical about a prison policy emphasizing rehabilitation and community-based prison facilities. p
"I think this is a compromise . . . that moves the entire situation along," said Corrections Secretary Gordon Kamka. "There's other legislation [in the corrections area] that needs to be passed," added Kamka, who appeared weary after a bout with the flu and a three-day long series of meetings on prison policies.
Hughes' policy reversal today does not necessarily assure passage of his package of prison-related bills, but key legislators indicated that the prospects for Hughes' measures look far brighter now than they did before.
The opposition to the administration's plans now centers, no surprisingly in two of the areas where new prison construction has been proposed the Jessup area, near the Anne Arundel-Howard County line, where there already is a massive prison complex, and the central Baltimore neighborhood that houses the penetentiary.
In an effort to mollify angry Anne Arundel County legislators -- including Tyras B. (Bunk) Athey, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee -- the administration proposals today included a measure limiting the total number of inmates in the Jessup area to 3,400 about 200 below the current level.
To underline this commitment, Hughes also directed the Department of Corrections and Public Safety, headed by Kamka, to declare as surplus "any property not needed to support correctional facilities and the programs at the Jessup complex."
However, Anne Arundel legislators -- who have seen the promises of earlier administrations scrapped when the governor's office changed hands -- remained unconvinced by Hughes' assurances.
"We are unalterably opposed to the construction of any new prison facilities in the Jessup community," said Sen. John A. Cade (R-Anne Arundel). "Whether it's on the Howard County side of the line or the Anne Arundel County side is immaterial." Behind him, about 70 Jessup-area residents, most wearing anti-prison lapel stickers, cheered.
And behind the committee table, State Sen. Julian A. Lapides, who represents the district which includes the penitentiary, complained bitterly about the new plan to increase the total number of buildings and inmates in his district.
"You must have bought a roulette wheel for the second floor [of the State House, where the governor and his staff have their offices] and now it's spun around into my neighborhood," Lapides told gubernatorial counsel Judson P. Garrett. ". . . It has a number of us disturbed that this is the kind of planning that goes on upstairs. Which is no real planning."
However, Senate President James Clark, who is also being asked to swallow a new prison facility in his Howard County district, said today: "I'm a realist. I'm not overjoyed at the prospect of having another prison in the Jessup area. But this [Hughes' new plan] is a pretty good solution to a difficult problem."
Added House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, "I think the governor's revision is certainly an improvement . . . but this issue isn't over yet."
The seven-point plan presented by the governor today was the product of three long meetings that took place Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and of endless exploratory telephone calls to legislators, architects, engineers, and the owners of some of the five parcels of land near the penitentiary that Hughes named as potential prison sites.
At the end of Thursday's two-hour meeting between the governor, nine of of his aides and Del. Frank Robey, chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on corrections, a proposal to build a new 500-bed facility near the penitentiary seemed in sight, according to several participants.
However, after talking with Kamka on Friday morning, the governor appeared to retreat slightly from this goal, insisting that all possible options regarding both the size and the site of a new facility must be examined in detail.
"The governor just wanted to put the brakes on," one Hughes aide said today.
"We were always working with the five-and-five proposal," the aide added, referring to the plan to build a new prison in central Baltimore coupled with the plan announced last December to build a 500-bed medium security facility in the Jessup area, replacing beds that would be lost by renovation of the House of Correction.
"The governor just wanted to take a little time to examine all the options," the aide said.
The administration, however, was working under a tight deadline: a Senate committee was due to have a hearing on its package of corrections bills early Monday afternoon. And looming in the background was a federal court order to end the double-occupancy of cells in the penitentiary and Jessup's House of Correction by July 1.
When Kamka was named as Hughes' first cabinet secretary, the former Baltimore City jail warden strongly expressed his belief that the orders of the federal court and the needs of the prison system could be met without building new medium- or maximum-security jails.
According to Robey, Kamka objected to the plans for a new 500-bed facility on Friday morning. "He said it was calling for more beds than he thought was necessary," Robey said. "But I thought that it's better to be safe than sorry."
However, after a four-hour meeting in Baltimore late Saturday afternoon, the governor became convinced that the state needs the flexibility of a medium-security facility that could house 500 prisoners. By Sunday, his aides were calling key legislators to fill them in on the decision.