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Editorial Advisory Board: First the BCDC; next, the rest of the Maryland Penitentiary

Editorial Advisory Board//July 31, 2015

Editorial Advisory Board: First the BCDC; next, the rest of the Maryland Penitentiary

We applaud Gov. Larry Hogan and his public safety team for closing the Men’s Dormitory of the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC). This section of the jail complex is part of the old Maryland Penitentiary, the design and construction of which began during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson and parts of which are also incorporated into the Division of Corrections’ Metropolitan Transition Center.

The closure of the BCDC Men’s Dormitory is part of a long-unmet capital plan to demolish the aging detention/corrections complex on East Madison Street. The closure of the Maryland Penitentiary buildings, along with the closure of the Maryland House of Correction, was one of six recommendations made by the O’Malley-Brown Corrections Study Group during the January 2007 transition. One of the first major actions former governor Martin O’Malley took in office was to close and transfer the inmates housed at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, a task accomplished 60 days after his inauguration. But there has been little legislative support for completing the job by demolishing the even older Maryland Penitentiary buildings in Baltimore city.

Considered the oldest prison in continuous operation in the western hemisphere, the Maryland Penitentiary was in the countryside to the north of the city when construction began. The facility finally opened in 1811 with 51 inmates. As Baltimore built up around the prison, a community for families of correctional officers and support staff grew up around the East Madison Street complex.

As the prison entered its second century, the Baltimore press reported rising complaints of officer cruelty and corruption, and a growing, violent prisoner population led to inmate riots. The response was harsher punishment, including use of the prison’s “dungeon” to punish troublemakers, likely a less humane version of solitary confinement.

For most of the 20th century, inmate violence and riots and correctional staff-versus-inmate altercations peppered the headlines, coming to a crescendo in October 1984 when Officer Herman Toulson became the first correctional officer to be killed in an inmate confrontation in Maryland. At least eight inmates died in violence in the decade surrounding Toulson’s death.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Maryland greatly expanded prison construction and opened medium- and maximum-security facilities in Jessup, Hagerstown, and Westover in Somerset County, as well as the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, known as “Supermax,” at 401 E. Madison St. This relieved overcrowding at the Maryland Penitentiary, Maryland House of Correction and Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown, which opened in 1931, and also allowed the Division of Corrections to demolish the south wing of the Maryland Penitentiary, creating room for the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Corrections Center and the BCDC complex and to repurpose the balance of the Maryland Penitentiary to operate as the Metropolitan Transition Center. The remaining vestiges of the Maryland Penitentiary would satisfy the most macabre expectations of prison settings, with the high ceilings and broken windows making climate control impossible and pigeons and rats testing the definition of “free range.”

The BCDC Men’s Dormitory and the Metropolitan Transition Center are ancient by contemporary corrections construction standards, failing to meet 21st-century safety and security challenges, and hindering efforts to combat gang infiltration of inmates and staff. Putting aside the problems created by crowding inmates into large dormitories, the design and retrofit over the past two centuries complicate the effective deployment of staff, camera coverage, and other security measures commonplace in modern facilities.

We encourage Gov. Hogan and the General Assembly to work together to fund the complete closure and demolition of the Maryland Penitentiary buildings and to replace them with modern facilities that will enable corrections staff to better ensure inmate and staff safety.

Editorial Advisory Board member Elizabeth Kameen did not participate in this opinion


James B. Astrachan, Chair

Wesley D. Blakeslee

Arthur F. Fergenson

Daniel F. Goldstein

Caroline Griffin

Elizabeth Kameen

Stephen Meehan

C. William Michaels

Gale Rasin

William Reynolds

Norman Smith

Tracy L. Steedman

H. Mark Stichel

Ferrier R. Stillman

The Daily Record Editorial Advisory Board is composed of members of the legal profession who serve voluntarily and are independent of The Daily Record. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the Board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the Bench, Bar and public. When their minds meet, unsigned opinions will result. When they differ, majority views and signed rebuttals will appear. Members of the community are invited to contribute letters to the editor and/or columns about opinions expressed by the Editorial Advisory Board.


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