Closing of Baltimore detention center marks a milestone

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Posted: Jul 31, 2015 5:23 AM
Closing of Baltimore detention center marks a milestone

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — An announcement by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan that he is closing the Baltimore City Detention Center marked a milestone in long-standing problems with the state's dangerously decrepit correctional facilities.

The Republican governor said Thursday that the state would save $10 million to $15 million a year by closing the state-run complex, where inmates and corrupt guards had run a criminal conspiracy that garnered national attention and where hundreds of inmates are held while awaiting trial or serving short sentences.

"Given the space we have, it makes no sense whatsoever to keep this deplorable facility open," Hogan said.

Problems with the jail have bedeviled state officials for years and spanned Democratic and Republican administrations, providing a steady flow of ammunition for political sniping. Hogan, standing by the crumbling building with walls dating to the 19th century, repeatedly cited failures in leadership in creating what he called "a black eye in our state for too long."

"For too long Maryland had been led down the wrong path," Hogan said. "Out of touch politicians in Annapolis made a practice of clinging to the status quo instead of finding common sense solutions to the many challenges that this state faces."

The Republican governor sharply criticized his predecessor, former Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is now seeking the Democratic nomination for president. He blasted O'Malley for his response to a sweeping federal indictment in 2013, which exposed a sophisticated drug-and cellphone-smuggling ring involving dozens of gang members and correctional officers at the jail. The investigation also exposed sexual relations between jailhouse gang leader Tavon White and female guards that left four of them pregnant.

Forty of the 44 defendants charged in the racketeering conspiracy were convicted, including 24 correctional officers. Thirty-five defendants pleaded guilty; eight defendants went to trial and one defendant died. White pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Hogan criticized O'Malley for characterizing the indictments at the time as a positive step in rooting out corruption.

"It was just phony political spin on a prison culture created by an utter failure in leadership," Hogan said.

O'Malley, for his part, took a dim view of the correctional infrastructure he inherited upon taking office in 2007, after Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich's tenure. In his first year, O'Malley closed the notorious House of Correction, which first opened in Jessup in 1879. Serious problems with juvenile justice centers had plagued Maryland for years, bringing critical reports from the U.S. Justice Department for civil rights violations.

Maryland Democrats criticized Hogan on Thursday for not including them in any discussions about closing the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center.

"Consistently, the governor has circumvented the Legislature rather than working together to find bipartisan and consensus-driven solutions," said Sen. James DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel, and Sen. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard.

Hogan said he was convinced he was making the right decision.

"We would never have been able to accomplish this had it been discussed in committee and public without taking the decisive action today," Hogan said.

The governor noted that the building's roof was crumbling. It has regular flooding and sewage problems. And blind corners make the facility unsafe for employees.

Stephen Moyer, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the unsafe and obsolete facility should have been closed years ago.

"Part of this structure pre-dates the Civil War," Moyer said. "Much of it is literally falling apart."

Moyer said inmates will be transported to other nearby facilities. A special phone line has been created so relatives will be able to find them.

The state has run the jail since 1991 and says it is one of the largest municipal jails in the country. Parts of the complex, which also has wings housing women and juveniles, date to 1859. Only the men's detention center is being closed. The men's facility had 841 pre-trial detainees on Thursday. About 750 are expected to be moved, because other buildings in the complex could accommodate some, said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.