Prince George's County voters will decide Nov. 2 whether to authorize a bond issue for a new $40 million jail. It would replace the present county detention center that has been the subject of a lawsuit about overcrowding that also has been cited has contributing to a large number of rapes and other sexual assaults among inmates.
The ballot question, known as "Question B," would authorize officials to issue $20 million in municipal bonds for the jail's design and construction. The state of Maryland would contribute another $20 million. The cost to county residents, who must pay the principal and interest on the bonds, would be about $3 million each year for 15 years; the money would come from the county's general fund, which includes property taxes, according to county finance director Bill Brown.
Last month, county officials settled a lawsuit alleging jail overcrowding of the existing structure, on Douglas Street in Upper Marlboro, by promising to build a 300-bed jail that would be ready for occupancy by Sept. 30, 1985.
If county residents reject "Question B," the judge who presided over the lawsuit, U.S. District Court Judge Frank Kaufman, could still force the county to build the jail using $20 million from property taxes or other county money, according to a lawyer involved in the case, called Lattisaw vs. Hughes, et al.
The jail was built to house 143 inmates but currently houses 450. About 70 percent of them are awaiting trial, some on such charges as shoplifting, trespassing and driving while intoxicated. Partly because of the overcrowding problem, numerous rapes and sexual assaults occur in the jail, according to guards and inmates.
Overcrowding contributes to rapes and sexual assaults, according to jail spokesman Jim O'Neill, because there is insufficient room to separate those who are likely to rape -- men charged with or convicted of violent crimes such as armed robbery and murder -- from those who tend to be their victims -- men charged with misdemeanors.
"More than half of these people (inmates) are charged with violent offenses," said O'Neill during an interview last month. "But with the population being what it is, there's just not enough space to classify everyone as far as charges."
There is no heated debate on building the new jail. Rather, there are those who simply say it is necessary -- including judges, lawyers and relatives of inmates and former inmates -- and those who say that they don't want it in their neighborhood.
Those who will vote against the bond issue include some residents of Upper Marlboro and Largo, who live in the neighborhood where the jail would be constructed on Brown Station Road, several miles from the site of the present jail. Even among residents opposed to the new site, however, there are those who intend to vote for "Question B." One of them is Wilbert Wilson, a Republican candidate for the county council in the sixth district, where the jail would be constructed.
"I'm opposed to moving the jail around to other people's neighborhoods," said Wilson. "But I feel compelled to vote for the bond issue because we're talking about human beings, the protection of people who are innocent until proven guilty."
The $3 million per year cost could result in cuts in some county services, especially if voters do not approve another ballot question that would lift some of the restrictions imposed by the tax-limiting TRIM charter amendment.
But Democrat County Councilman Parris Glendening, campaigning to succeed Republican Lawrence J. Hogan as county executive, says he doubts that building a new jail would result in such cuts, because the county expects to receive increases in state and federal aid.
Glendening is one of a handful of politicians who mentions "Question B" in his campaign. "I believe it (a new jail) is essential for law enforcement itself," Glendening says. "People are being released early or not sentenced because there's not enough room in the jail. Also, we ought to have facilities that permit humane treatment of the prisoners."