Lawmakers tour Baltimore jail, call for facility improvements

After passing through the clanking doors and winding hallways of the Baltimore City Detention Center on Thursday, state lawmakers said the state should consider upgrading the troubled jail or even demolishing it and rebuilding from scratch.

Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, said he has asked the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to calculate the cost of a replacement jail. Del. Keiffer Mitchell Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, said he "would like to see a new, state-of-the-art facility."

"It's clearly an antiquated facility," said Del. Guy Guzzone, a Howard County Democrat and a chairman of a special legislative corrections commission. But he said building a new jail would likely be "cost-prohibitive." Initial estimates to build one are close to half a billion dollars, officials said.

The legislators were part of a 14-member commission on prison and jail corruption, formed after a federal indictment charged 25 alleged gang members and corrections officers in a smuggling scheme.

"This commission is going to be an asset for the department," said corrections secretary Gary D. Maynard. "We really appreciate your help."

The age of the downtown Baltimore jail was immediately apparent. Parts of the facility date to before the Civil War, and inside, hand-painted signs remind visitors to keep their children behaved.

The event was a chance for the department to show off the changes it has made since the indictment, which was unsealed in April, and show what other changes might be needed.

Immediately after the federal charges were announced, Maynard left his Towson office to set up shop in the detention center. He sometimes uses jail administrator Ricky Foxwell's desk, or sits in an adjoining room. Acting security chief Maj. Timothy Woodrum sits down the hall — his predecessor was forced out after officials said she failed a polygraph test.

The jail administrator and security chief now have large wide-screen televisions in their office displaying feeds from the jail's hundreds of digital security cameras. The recordings are also archived for 45 days, Maynard said, to be used in investigations.

On Thursday, the screens showed the lawmakers moving through the hallways and a pair of inmates in yellow jumpsuits cleaning a door.

Mitchell said officials described how corrections officers are hauled in and reminded of the prohibition on fraternization if they are seen on camera talking to an inmate for more than a minute.

He added that Maynard told the legislators that his top priority was getting automatic security doors installed. Currently, Mitchell said, corrections officers unlock doors with keys, slowing down movement in the facility and leaving officers exposed.

A number of lawmakers said they were surprised by the number of people moving around inside the facility. Corrections officials said the traffic — involving inmates being taken to court every day or heading for medical treatment — is a big difference between jails and prisons, where daily life is much more regimented.

"You could see the contraband issue" as a result of the movement, Mitchell said.

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said the department expects to have a new dining hall for inmates open by the fall. At the moment, he said, the daily meal servings to each cell present a ripe opportunity for passing off contraband.

DeGrange said that he had confidence in Maynard but that more work remained to be done.

"It's going to be a long process," he said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/iduncan