Members of the House committee feuding with Gov. Harry Hughes over the state's overcrowded prison system today introduced legislation to build a new 500-bed prison in Hagerstown, ensuring that the long-simmering debate over the state's corrections policy will be renewed again this session.
The bill, co-sponsored by 12 of the 24 members of the House Appropriations Committee, including Chairman John R. Hargreaves (D-Caroline), would authorize $2.2 million in state funds to be used to plan and design a medium- to maximum-security prison on state-owned land adjacent to the existing Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.
The proposal comes in response to a report by a consultant hired by the legislature. The report concluded that despite the approval of two large new prisons by the legislature last year, the state still needs to build more to accommodate an increasing number of inmates.
Hughes' corrections chief, Gordon Kamka, and other state officials have disputed the consultant's analysis and contend there is no need to decide on further prison construction this year. But the House committee members, who have long opposed Kamka's philosophy of emphasizing community-based corrections centers over large, high-security prisons, say that more such facilities are essential and that the administration is simply avoiding the issue.
"They still have this misguided faith that somehow there is less of a need for medium and maximum security facilities, and that this [community corrections] program is some kind of miracle solution," said Del. Timothy Maloney (D-Prince George's), who drafted the bill with Baltimore County Del. Mark Medairy. "But we're looking at a shortage of beds of 1,000 to 3,000 we've got federal court orders on overcrowding at Hagerstown staring us in the face, and we've got to do something to alleviate the problem."
Kamka's staff said they had no immediate response to the legislative action, but the prison-building proposal is almost certain to be opposed by Hughes. "The governor has said that this is not the year for any decisions on new construction, and I don't think there's been any new developments that would change his mind," said Michael Canning, the governor's aide for corrections policy.
Nevertheless, the measure's heavy sponsorship by Appropriations Committee members gives it a strong chance of being brought to the House floor, and its supporters said today there is also substantial support this year in the Senate for new prison construction.