ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers were told by more than a half-dozen witnesses Thursday that corruption issues at the Baltimore City Detention Center are not unique to the city jail.
But Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary D. Maynard described some special challenges at the 153-year-old city facility and told legislators that removing the jail from his agency’s purview would be worth exploring.
In a hearing held by the Legislative Policy Committee — which includes the presiding officers, committee chairs and party leaders from the House of Delegates and Senate — lawmakers peppered Maynard with questions about conditions at the jail, where 13 correctional officers were indicted in April for their role in a sordid jail gang scandal that revolved around drugs, money and sex.
Physical conditions at the detention center are just part of the problem, Maynard said.
“It is a facility that needs to be replaced,” he said, adding that a lack of physical space and no alternative holding plan for inmates complicated renovations.
Other lawmakers were interested in the status of an investigation that is seeking to determine which — if any — supervisors at the detention center colluded with 13 correctional officers who were indicted in April for their role in a scheme that federal authorities say gave a gang leader de-facto control of the city jail. Maynard said he could not provide details of that investigation, except that it was ongoing.
Maynard said when he was appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2007 to take over the state’s correctional facilities, a friend told him not to take the job because of deep-rooted corruption and violence in the system. Having already accepted the position, Maynard said he struck out to reduce violence.
“Despite the recent headlines, Maryland’s prison system is much safer now than it was back then,” Maynard told the committee, saying that inmate violence against guards was down 65 percent and inmate violence against fellow inmates was down 47 percent since 2007.
But after Maynard described steps taken since the indictments to further root out corruption — including forming the Baltimore City Correctional Investigative Unit with the city state’s attorney and Maryland State Police and moving his office to the city jail — House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, who chaired the committee hearing, suggested a separate agency or independent entity could take jurisdiction of the detention center, which the state wrested away from the city in 1991.
Other detention centers in the state are run by local jurisdictions. Maynard said the idea should be fleshed out through the summer and fall, as a 14-member joint legislative task force, announced Thursday, studies laws, regulations and practices at Maryland’s prisons and jails.
House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, agreed it was worth discussing bringing the city jail under a separate umbrella, rather than having the same agency that runs the state’s prisons also be concerned with the city facility.
“It seems inefficient,” Kipke said.
Though lawmakers’ inquiries were largely directed at Maynard, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein and Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger articulated their frustration with lax state laws governing illegal cellphones in jails and prisons and the slow pace of justice in Baltimore’s overcrowded court system.
Shellenberger cited two examples of murders in Baltimore County that started with phone calls from the Baltimore Detention Center.
“We cannot convict if witnesses cannot come to court because they are scared,” Shellenberger said. “Or because they are dead.”
Bernstein said more circuit court judges in Baltimore could help alleviate crime in the jail, where 90 percent of the population is awaiting trial. The other 10 percent are being held on short-term sentences no longer than 18 months, he said.
By approving more money in the state budget for city judges, inmates’ stays at the city jail could be reduced, which would have a “meaningful impact on reducing criminal activity in the jail,” Bernstein said.
Both state’s attorneys said they would support legislation to make bringing an illegal cellphone into a prison a felony. Similar legislation has previously failed.
At the conclusion of the three-hour hearing, Busch said an announcement of the first meeting of the newly formed Special Joint Commission on Public Safety and Security in State and Local Correctional Facilities would be announced soon. Sen. James E. “Ed” DeGrange Sr., D-Anne Arundel, and Del. Guy J. Guzzone, D-Howard, were appointed co-chairs of the commission.