Gov. Harry Hughes' attempts to relieve overcrowding and reorganize inmate classification in Maryland's troubled prison system faltered today when a federal judge overturned a plan to expand the capacity of two state prisons even as the governor was announcing it.
Hughes, faced with a growing controversy over his administration's corrections policies, announced a series of changes in the prison system, including a proposal to add 444 inmates to state prisons in Jessup through double-celling and double-tier bedding.
The governor's plan, describing at a morning press conference, called in part of increasing the planned population of a prison due to open in June by nearly 50 percent and was intended to help the state to comply with federal court orders to end double-ceiling at the Maryland Correctional Institute in Hagerstown and the state Penitentiary reception center in Baltimore.
But U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey, who oversees one of two longstanding court cases against the state for unconstitutional prison overcrowding, vetoed the proposed inmate shifts in a meeting with state lawyers in Baltimore while the announcement was being made in Annapolis.
Later, Hughes issued a statement saying that Harvey's decision would be appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. "I am still determined to seek every possible legal remedy to alleviate further overcrowding at Maryland correctional institutions . . .," the governor's statement said.
Harvey's decision did not affect several other new measures by Hughes, who ordered an overhaul of corrections policy after a series of controversies over inmate classification and prerelease programs forced the resignation of two top corrections officials last month.
Hughes said that the acting chief of the corrections department, former budget director Thomas W. Schmidt, has established a new level of security classification in state prisons by separating prisoners now designated as "prerelease/minimum security" into two distinct groups. Those designated as "minimum security" risks will now be housed only in facilities with perimeter fences, rather than in prerelease centers that have been plgued by hundreds of escapes, Hughes said.
In addition, Hughes said, 64 mimimum security prisoners were to be moved today from the House of Correction in Jessup to the partially completed, 512-bed annex nearby, and 100 other minimum-security inmates would be housed in temporary buildings to be placed within the fences of the two Jessup facilities. These shifts will allow inmates now in prerelease and minimum security camps to be transferred to the more secure settings in and outside the House of Correction, corrections officials later explained.
Hughes earlier this month ordered a review of every inmate in the prison system to determine which are in facilities that are too secure or not secure enough. He added that he was willing to risk violating the federal court orders if it proved necessary to move hundreds of inmates into more secure settings.
That inmate review has not yet been completed, but Hughes said today that Schmidt has drafted revised classification regulations for prerelease inmates, the focus of much of the recent controversy. Twenty-seven work-release prisoners were indicited by a Baltimore grand jury last month for offense ranging from murder to escape that they allegedly committed while in the program.
The new regulations, still under review by state officials, would prevent inmates convicted of more serious offenses and those not yet eligible for parole from entering work release programs, Hughes said.
The changes overruled by Judge Harvey essentially would have allowed the state to shift double-celling practices ruled to be unconstitutional at Hagerstown and the Baltimore Penitentiary to the new Jessup annex. Prison officials maintained that double-celling is acceptable at the new facility because it is far more spacious than the aging Hagerstown complex and the penitentiary.
In addition, Schmidt and Hughes proposed to spread 220 more prisoners through four dormitories at the Jessup House of Correction by using double-tiered bedding.
When Judge Harvey refused to accept this plan, state officials offered a compromise that would have allowed the double-celling and double-tiered beds, but limited the practice to 120 days and restricted the types of inmates who would have been affected by it. This alternative was also rejected.