The Supreme Court's ruling yesterday that double-celling of inmates is not automatically unconstitutional may help Maryland in its longstanding and tangled federal court battles involving overcrowding in several state prisons.
Maryland Attorney General Stephen Sachs said that the opinion in on Ohio case "seems to cut in Maryland's favor with respect to the proposals we have made to reduce overcrowding." Gov. Harry Hughes said he "welcomed the decision as support of our conscientious efforts to solve the overcrowding problem."
The state is under three federal court orders -- two of them issued in 1978 -- to end unconstitional overcrowding and stop placing two prisoners in single cells at three Maryland institutions.
The state recently proposed meeting two of those orders -- in the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore and the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown -- by doubling up prisoners for four months apiece at the state's newest prison, opened this month in Jessup. But U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Harvey rejected that proposal.
The state appealed that decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and it is in this case that officials believe the new Supreme Court ruling may have its heaviest impact.
The Supreme Court ruled in the Ohio case that the "Constitution does not mandate comfortable prisons." The case involved the doubling up of prisoners in cells in an Ohio prison that was otherwise considered relatively modern. That type of overcrowding, where other conditions are in order, is clearly not unconstitutional, the court ruled.
Assistant Attorney General Deborah Handel said the Jessup prison, where the double-celling was proposed, is a comparable situation. "That prison is brand new," she said.
However, Lawrence Coshnear, head of the Baltimore Legal Aid Bureau Prisoner Assistance Project that has been representing the inmates, said it is still unclear whether the Jessup institution is ready to house an excess of prisoners because certain facilities are not yet completed.
Handel said she believed the Ohio ruling may also aid the state slightly in a second overcrowding case involving a prison in Hagerstown, Md. In that case, the state has been ordered to pay heavy fines until it complies with a federal judge's order to end overcrowding. But the fines have been held in abeyance until the state's appeal, also to the 4th Circuit, has been decided.
Handel said the Ohio ruling set some new limits on the power of federal judges to order sweeping prison reforms, and that this position may work in the state's favor.