Maryland's high-tech prison to house the state's worst offenders

By Greg Garland
The Baltimore Sun

CRESAPTOWN, Md. Amid the scenic mountains of Western Maryland looms a forbidding fortress of a prison designed with one goal in mind keeping the state's most violent and disruptive criminals inside, and under complete control.

North Branch Correctional Institution, a state-of-the-art maximum-security prison just south of Cumberland, has been opening in phases since 2003 and will double in size to hold up to 1,400 inmates when two more housing units open next year.

The high-tech prison which will cost $171 million when completed is taking inmates from aging facilities such as the House of Correction in Jessup, which was shut down in March after months of relentless violence. North Branch features the latest in correctional security devices as well as a "special-management unit" where the most incorrigible offenders spend weeks in what is essentially solitary confinement.

"This is the end of the line here," said Warden John A. Rowley, who manages the huge prison. "Our mission is to deal with the most problematic inmates. We have a great deal of control."

Security features include nearly 500 digital video cameras that monitor every part of the prison where inmates have access. Electronic sensors detect any suspicious movement and display the location on control-tower computer screens. Should a fight erupt in a dining hall or housing corridor, correctional officers can shoot tear gas through special ports in the walls to regain control.

Cells are made of super-strength concrete poured into casting molds, leaving no seams or cracks that could be gouged out to provide hiding places for weapons or drugs. The living space for up to 23 hours a day measures just over 60 square feet, about the size of a large walk-in closet. The walls are covered with graffiti-resistant epoxy paint.

From their seats in control rooms, correctional officers can push a button to stop the flow of water into a cell's stainless-steel sinks and toilets to prevent vandalism. Push a different button, and officers can activate speakers to talk to a prisoner in his cell.

North Branch, which derives its name from the branch of the Potomac River that flows behind the prison, was built adjacent to the Western Correctional Institution. The prison complex is now Allegany County's third-largest employer.

The new prison is "meant to last 60 years or more," said assistant corrections secretary David N. Bezanson, who oversees prison construction projects. He and Rowley offered a reporter a behind-the-scenes look at North Branch.

It is a far cry from the aging facilities that Maryland has relied on to house thousands of maximum-security inmates. The House of Correction, for example, was a scene of repeated violence - including the killings last year of a correctional officer and three inmates. The nearly 130-year-old prison lacked the highly secured cells, dozens of cameras and clear sight lines that allow officers at North Branch to see potential threats.

One of the two units that has opened at North Branch houses inmates who corrections officials say are the worst of the worst - active gang members and violent prisoners with a reputation for causing disruptions. Inmates in the special-management unit are confined largely to their cells while they go through a 13-month "quality of life" program that is meant to get them to change their way of thinking.

They are moved in handcuffs and leg shackles at all times, accompanied by staff. When they participate in group education and counseling, they do so from individual cages that resemble barred telephone booths.

Inmates assigned to this unit are allowed almost no privileges during their first few weeks. They can't buy anything from the commissary; they are allowed only one day of recreation and two showers per week; and they are not permitted outside visitors. No TV. No radios. No video games. And no phone calls.

As they advance through the program participating in anger-management classes and other self-improvement exercises the restrictions are gradually eased. The key is that they have to earn privileges by demonstrating self-control and improving their behavior, said James K. Holwager, the prison's chief psychologist.

"It is pretty bleak ... but it is for the safety of everyone," Holwager said.

The harshness troubles some inmate advocates, who contend that behavior management programs should be voluntary or they will have little effect.

"If somebody is forced to do this so they can get a Walkman, they are going to do it," said Kimberly Haven of Justice Maryland. "But are they really getting everything they can out of it, or are they just doing it to manipulate the system?"

Robert T. Goble, with a South Carolina-based corrections consulting firm, said isolating inmates for prolonged periods is not a good practice. What is needed, he said, are more educational and work-training programs to keep inmates engaged and prepare them for eventual release.

"It's not coddling; it's just common sense," Goble said. "If you take someone and treat them like an animal, how would you expect them to behave? Like an animal."

But Holwager said the program at North Branch is having a positive impact. "It is very clear that this program has already decreased violence because people don't want to be here," Holwager said. "Almost universally, they say, `I don't want to be in the program.' That means we're doing our job right."

While tight restrictions apply to inmates in the special-management unit, Warden Rowley noted that more space is set aside for education and other programs than at the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, more commonly known as Supermax.

In addition, cells at North Branch are larger and the housing units are more spacious, with wider passageways separating the two sides of a special-management unit housing tier, he said. "We made an intentional effort to make it more open," Rowley said.

Bezanson said the special-management unit at North Branch was designed to take the place of the Supermax program, although the Baltimore prison will continue to house some inmates.

The special-management unit, providing 256 single-bed cells, is only one of four housing units planned for North Branch. Two other units, one of which is open, house general-population inmates who are allowed more freedom of movement, some in double cells; another is planned as a segregation/lockdown unit.

On a warm fall day, dozens of general-population inmates could be seen playing basketball and exercising in an outdoor recreation yard under the watchful gaze of correctional officers.

One prisoner in his 50s, who is serving a life sentence for murder, agreed to talk if his name wasn't used. He said North Branch is cleaner than other prisons he's been in.

But, he said, there are too few jobs available for inmates and not enough opportunities for self-improvement. "Most of the young guys join gangs because there's nothing else to do and because they're scared," he said.

Rowley said the lack of jobs and programming is a temporary situation that will be rectified as the two new housing units and other planned facilities open next year.

Copyright 2007 The Balitmore Sun

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