THOUGH MARYLAND Gov.-elect Harry R. Hughes is often described as almost too deliberate, he didn't waste any time addressing what we consider to be one of the state's most serious problems -- the packed prisons. As we mentioned in this space a month ago, the problems of corrections departments don't generally rank high on the political agendas of politicians or their constituents; even though conditions in Maryland have been so bad that courts have found the overcrowding to be cruel and unusual punishment. To his credit, Mr. Hughes has already announced the selection of someone to head the corrections system who has some sensible proposals for bringing prompt relief to Maryland's prisons: Baltimore city warden Gordon C. Kamka.
Mr. Kamka questions some of the assumptions that have guided prison policy in Maryland and elsewhere -- among them the traditional "wait-'till-we-build-the- new-prison" approach. Says the warden: "The problem in Maryland is not that we don't have enough prison space. We have too many prisoners." We hasten to note that Mr. Kamka is not advocating the indiscriminate release of dangerous criminals. What he has said over the years is that thousands of prisoners deemed nondangerous and serving relatively short sentences should be treated in other ways: with workrelease programs, paroles, placement in small facilities and other arrangements. "Huge warehouses have not contributed one iota to public safety," Mr. Kamka contends. If anything, he says, they aggravate the crime problem because inmates return to the streets more embittered and threatening than before.
Whether this approach will eliminate the need for a new medium-security prison -- which has been in and out of the works for more than three years now -- remains to be seen. Mr. Kamka says he would await the findings of a special panel of experts that Mr. Hughes is assembling to study this question and make recommendations. That makes sense, up to a point: The state is under court order to reduce overcrowding by certain deadlines.
As city jail warden, Mr. Kamka also has initiated some interesting programs aimed at helping inmates to overcome alcoholism and drug addiction and other causes of their incarceration; and he has established some effective grievance procedures for inmates. While these are not the sort of things that excite the general population, Mr. Hughes's serious attention to Maryland's correction system -- and to new thinking on it -- is most welcome.