A proposal to shift a planned "super maximum" security prison from Baltimore to Hagerstown and give the site earmarked for it to the city for expansion of its local jail has run aground -- at least temporarily -- on the shoals of some political egos.
Gov. Harry Hughes, Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg and House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, all of whom were said by legislative sources to be supportive of the proposal on Wednesday, spent a good part of today tossing the plan back and forth like a game of political hot potato.
Hughes, at his regular weekly news conference, labeled "premature" the plan that would include the state's helping Baltimore expand its local jail in return for the city's taking more short-term state prisoners. Cardin, in the face of growing opposition by Western Maryland delegates, said there has "not been an agreement" to shift the proposed prison to Hagerstown. Steinberg said, "It appears as if a suggestion has been amplified into a proposal."
All of which left the main architect of that proposal, Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's), standing helplessly by as his plan publicly unraveled.
By Maloney's account, Cardin, Steinberg and the governor all agreed to the proposal, which Hughes and Baltimore Mayor William D. Schaefer discussed on Tuesday, but it fell apart because several members of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee had not been consulted. When those senators began to balk, Steinberg, Cardin and Hughes backed off because of the lack of consensus.
At his news conference today, Hughes said that members of the House of Delegates pushing the proposal were "a little premature in formalizing it without discussing it with members of the Senate. I can understand why they the senators were a little upset."
Hughes administration prison officials had proposed that the $20 million, 300-cell segregation facility be constructed adjacent to the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore. But Maloney, the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on prisons, has been working for several weeks to shift it out of the city as the key element in a plan to relieve general prison system crowding by transferring state inmates to local jails.
Maloney insisted today that Hagerstown is the only likely site for the prison if the state is to complete an agreement with Schaefer to take more state prisoners. "You can't put the super-max in Somerset, you can't put the super-max in Jessup," said Maloney, referring to the state's other prison complex sites. "If you leave it in Baltimore, you preclude the city from having a site for its jail. And if you preclude the city, you can't get the bill passed" to transfer prisoners to local jails.
But other legislators, including state Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), the chairman of the Senate budget committee, said the clumsy handling of the proposal this week could torpedo forever the prison plan.
"It was a screw-up in communication," said Levitan. "Mickey Steinberg didn't know what was going on. Ben Cardin didn't know what was going on. I'm not sure the governor knew what was going on. You get surprised, you get in big trouble. It looked like a viable approach, but now it will be very difficult to get back on track."
Cardin and Steinberg, in an effort to build a consensus that escaped them this week, have scheduled a joint meeting Monday of the House and Senate budget subcommittees that handle prisons.