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Lawmakers hear about Baltimore jail contraband

About a dozen Maryland lawmakers got a first-hand look at one of the nation’s busiest jails on Thursday as they try to figure out how to stop contraband from flowing into an antiquated facility where some sections are older than the Civil War.

Members of a special legislative commission said afterward that there is a considerable movement of detainees in the Baltimore City Detention Center, as they head to court appointments or health checkups. The jail, which is run by the state, has a standing population of between 2,400 and 3,000 detainees.

“There’s still a lot more to be done,” said Sen. James DeGrange, D-Anne Arundel. “A lot more will be done. We’re going to be looking at a lot of things, whether it’s capital improvements that are necessary, whether it’s electronic issues that need to be addressed within the facility, so we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The facility is the only one of its kind to be managed by the state prison authority. Lawmakers who have been examining the jail have noted that the center is very different from the prisons run by the state, because many of the people held there are pretrial detainees who move around more than prison inmates.

The tour took place as union leaders have noted a spike in assaults on correctional officers by inmates over the past two weeks at the maximum-security North Branch Correctional Institute in Cumberland. Union officials scheduled a meeting with the department on Thursday.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the department, said Maryland Department of Corrections and Public Safety Secretary Gary Maynard was in regular contact with the warden of the facility.

“There are a lot of things in the works,” Vernarelli said.

Before the tour, which was not open to journalists who were able to hear Maynard’s briefing inside the jail, Maynard told lawmakers about actions taken at the facility since federal authorities announced indictments against 25 people, including 13 correctional officers in a contraband corruption case in April.

For example, 144 cameras have been replaced or repaired in the jail, where there are now 256 cameras that store more than 45 days of recording. The department also plans to add 65 more.

Corrections officials also have started a computer-generated random list of 210 staff members each week to check for contraband in addition to normal staff screening. The department’s special operations group has conducted 111 searches for contraband in addition to random cell searches. The department also has transferred 20 high-risk detainees identified as security threats to other institutions.