Gov. Harry Hughes confirmed today that he has selected 603 acres in rural Somerset County as the site for a new 1,000-cell prison. But in another action, apparently designed to lessen complaints from Eastern Shore legislators and residents, Hughes said he has decided against building a temporary 840-bed prison on the same site.
"They picked the path of least resistance because we lack political clout," said Del. Lewis R. Riley (R-Lower Shore), who opposes building the prison in his area. "But we'll put up a gallant fight."
Riley admitted that it will be difficult to overturn the governor's decision because only 10 of the House's 141 delegates and three of the 47 senators are from the Eastern Shore.
Hughes' decision does not directly come up for approval by the legislature, but the $70 million or so needed to build the prison must be approved by the General Assembly.
Some legislators questioned whether the decision not to place temporary units at Somerset would jeopardize an agreement reached last week as part of the settlement of two longstanding federal lawsuits brought because of overcrowding in the state's prisons. The agreement called for placing temporary structures on the site of the new prison, although it did not specify Somerset as that site.
Hughes aides said his action is not at odds with the agreement because he has told his staff to find another location for the temporary buildings.
Assistant Attorney General Emory Plitt, who helped negotiate the agreement, said the state has at least until Dec. 31 to have the temporary housing built.
In a letter sent today to Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg and House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, Hughes said he had selected the Somerset site, 13 miles south of the county seat of Princess Anne, because it "meets the necessary access, cost, availability, utility, labor supply and geographic considerations." He added that his administration will do what it can "to maximize the positive benefits for residents of Somerset County and to minimize the negative impacts."