It's a growing monument to people who misbehave: an $11 million, 192-bed expansion of the Prince George's County jail.
The long-awaited project, which has been in the planning stages for more than 10 years, broke ground last month and is scheduled to be completed in January 2001. And although county officials say the extra space should alleviate congestion at the chronically crowded jail, no one is predicting that it will solve the problem for long.
"Is this going to hold us? I don't know," said Barry L. Stanton, director of the Prince George's Department of Corrections. "The reality is, when you add police on the streets, you also need to look at the demand placed on the Department of Corrections."
In fact, the county is quietly drawing up proposals for another expansion that would add 192 more beds to the jail sometime in the next several years, though the timing and financing are still up in the air.
Prince George's Public Safety Director Fred Thomas said tentative plans call for a second expansion to be completed by 2005 or 2006.
"We know that by the time we finish the first phase, it will be necessary to begin a second phase," he said. "And we've started the preliminary planning for that."
The jail has been packed with prisoners sentenced in Prince George's courts almost since the day it opened in February 1987. The jail, on Dille Drive, a dead-end street off Brown Station Road in Upper Marlboro, was built to hold no more than 1,138 inmates--and that's when they are double-bunked in every cell.
The jail started off with less than 700 inmates in 1987. Within two years, however, corrections officials were squeezing 1,250 prisoners into the $53 million building, more than 110 people over capacity.
The surge was fueled primarily by rising crime rates and an escalating number of drug arrests made by police. With the cells full, jail officials resorted to cramming extra bunk beds into common areas and day rooms.
In February 1989, then-County Executive Parris N. Glendening (D) proposed a 384-bed expansion for the jail, but the plan fizzled for a lack of money. Meanwhile, the jail population continued to swell, cresting above 1,400 inmates in the mid-1990s. It since has stabilized and currently houses about 1,300.
Stanton said that reviving the expansion plans has been one of his biggest priorities since he was hired in November 1997 by County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D).
In addition to the extra cells, the project includes construction of a new regional booking unit, a bigger medical ward and an enhanced network of security cameras. Total price tag: $10.9 million, half from the state and half from the county.
Although a bigger jail isn't exactly a source of civic pride, Stanton said, the expansion is necessary to keep criminals off the streets.
"Look at this as a public safety project," he said. "It's a need in this county--a public safety need. No, we don't like spending on correctional facilities, but the reality is that there is a need."
Stanton said the Department of Corrections is working closely with judges to reduce the strain on the jail by sentencing more small-time criminals to home detention or community service programs. But he said there's no alternative when it comes to repeat offenders or violent criminals.
"I don't care how overcrowded we get--if those violent offenders need to be in jail, we're going to keep them here," he said. "We're not going to allow murderers and rapists out on the street."
About 18,000 people are locked up in the jail each year, Stanton said. Most are awaiting trial; the rest are generally serving sentences of less than 18 months. Criminals with longer sentences serve their time in the state prison system.