A state legislative commission endorsed a half-billion dollar plan on Wednesday to knock down the troubled Baltimore jail and rebuild it, lending new weight to a longstanding idea that languished for years as the Civil War-era facility continued to age.
The panel of state senators and delegates, convened in the wake of an FBI investigation into widespread smuggling and corruption at the jail, said in a report that the facility's outdated design makes it difficult to manage and allows contraband to flow unchecked.
"The best resolution to these issues is the demolition and replacement of the old, inadequate structures," they concluded.
The document, which the lawmakers approved Wednesday, also includes plans to make it easier to suspend officers who are suspected of smuggling, to standardize security procedures and expand employee training.
While the building program is the most eye-catching proposal set out by the commission, it also recommended several shorter-term — and much cheaper — fixes.
Del. Guy J. Guzzone, one of the heads of the commission, said those measures would be at least as important as the building proposal, and some outside observers said they should be the priority.
Corrections officials have long hoped for a better city jail. They began laying out designs for the 27-acre downtown Baltimore City Detention Center campus at least as far back as 2004, and in June proposed a 10-year, step-by-step replacement of the facilities. Construction of the first phase, a youth detention facility, would begin in 2015.
The proposals met with approval from Gov. Martin O'Malley — who attended Wednesday's meeting — union leaders, and corrections officials alike, but also set up a debate on the best approach to moving forward.
The meeting was a final public appearance for Corrections Secretary Gary Maynard, who announced Tuesday that he would step down and take a private-sector job.
In an interview, Maynard said that many of the proposals were not new, but that the crisis at the jail had attracted lawmakers' attention.
"It sounds like the legislature has a lot more interest now," he said.
Monique Dixon, the director of the criminal and juvenile justice program of the Open Society Institute, said that before the state commits to building a major new facility, officials should examine ways to cut the number of people locked up while they await trial.
"There are ways to reduce the jail population to more safely manage the detainees who are held there," Dixon said. "If you build it, you're going to fill it."
The number of inmates at the jail has declined since 2008, according to the legislative report. Dixon predicted that the trend would likely continue once the state acts on a court decision that guarantees defendants a lawyer when their bail is first set.
A decline in the number of juveniles being charged as adults helped bolster the argument against a controversial plan to build a special facility to house them in Baltimore. The governor's office abandoned that plan in January, settling instead for a modest facility that forms part of the overall jail building plan.
Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who opposed the youth jail, said a facility for adults is a different issue.
"Clearly there's been dramatic changes in prison technology that cannot be incorporated in a building that old," said Anderson, who was not a member of the commission. Starting over from scratch, he said, "would be an expedient use of money."
But a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said officials needed to look beyond rebuilding to solve corruption and tackle crime.
"The mayor believes if we are going to commit substantial dollars to capital projects such as jails and prisons, we should also look at other things we are doing to prevent crime and the short and long-term impacts that will have on incarceration," spokesman Kevin Harris said.
The lawmakers' plan, which is intended to serve as a blueprint for the General Assembly session that opens in January, also suggests sending "high-risk" pretrial detainees from Baltimore to prisons elsewhere in the state, subjecting job applicants to polygraph tests and a battery of measures to improve security at facility entrances.
The lawmakers recommend giving senior department officials new powers to suspend without pay officers suspected of smuggling contraband, even in cases when the offense would amount to a misdemeanor.
Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat, said legislators have been pushing the corrections department in recent years to firm up its plans for reconstructing the jail.
"We really want to see some action," he said in an interview. "This facility is just antiquated."
In the master plan submitted to the General Assembly in June, the corrections department pointed to the federal corruption indictment as demonstrating the need for a modern facility.
"The problems of gang activity and corruption in the BCDC are aggravated by the deteriorating physical condition and obsolete design of the facility," the department said. "The configuration of the building makes it difficult to directly supervise inmates and maintain the accountability of staff, as well as control movement through the facility."
"Security Improvements are needed, but the age of the infrastructure requires significant expenditures just to maintain minimal functionality of plumbing and heating systems, building envelope and life safety systems."
But Elizabeth Alexander, a Washington-based attorney involved in litigation over conditions at the jail, said that the problems of corrupt staff and inmates in gangs would not necessarily be solved by a grand building program.
"It would be nice if the violence and corruption went away first," Alexander said.