ANNAPOLIS – The Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services asked legislators Tuesday to emphasize rehabilitating convicts instead of building more prisons, even though Maryland is beginning to face prison overcrowding.
Bishop L. Robinson made the suggestions during a joint briefing for senate and house committees. Robinson suggested that legislators need to spend more money on educating and providing drug treatment for convicts.
“The more we educate, the better off we’re going to be,” Robinson said.
However, Patrick Frank, an analyst for the State Department of Fiscal Services, said that although the state has seen a slow but continued growth in the prison population, overcrowding may still be an issue by the year 2000 if administrators don’t begin planning now.
Del. Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, said that addressing inmate recidivism is important, but so is preparing for the future. His sentiment was shared by several legislators at the briefing.
“The problem is we’re going to need build a lot of prisons,” Franchot said. “There are a lot of bad people out there. There are a lot of stupid people who hook up with bad people. That unfortunately is reality.”
The Department of Public Safety projects a long-term growth increase, but the population has hardly grown in recent months, Frank said. Prisoners increased from 21,721 in early July 1996 to 21,725 in early 1997. That, combined with the opening of the first two housing units at the Western Correction Institution in Cumberland, has reduced prison crowding.
Early this month, there were about 700 inmates in that prison. However, other state prisons are still overcrowded, with about 1,000 inmates living in gymnasiums and day rooms. Frank said that based on public safety predictions, the Department of Corrections will have a shortage of about 100 beds when the final housing unit of the Western Correction Institution’s north compound is completed in two to three years.
He suggests building a south compound at the prison on land already owned by the state. Frank said the state should begin planning for this facility either this year or next year because it takes four years to build a prison.
The problem is that in 1996 the state administration submitted its new five-year plan, which deleted all prison construction through 2001.
Robinson, however, noted that Maryland has the sixth-lowest prison population growth rate in the country.
This year’s Department of Public Safety Budget was about $697 million compared to $201 million in 1987. Robinson said that alternatives to incarceration have saved the state $55 million for prison construction and $15 million to $20 million for operating costs.
He said that state legislators should include plans for a south compound, which would cost $4 million, in a five-year plan next year.
Right now they should emphasize funding existing state programs that provide drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders, he said.
“I believe in incarcerating violent offenders for as long as we can,” Robinson said. “When we get to these drug offenders all we do is interrupt the cycle and give them subsidized living for a couple of months.”
A majority of the prisoners who are released don’t receive any drug treatment because the department doesn’t have adequate funding, he said. Eighty percent of the people coming into prison have a drug problem, a history of little or no employment and 6.5 years of education. Robinson estimates that about half of the prison population is functionally illiterate.
Of the 70,000 people arrested each year, half are repeat offenders, Robinson said.
“It doesn’t matter how many prisons we build if we don’t deal with this,” said Del. Kenneth Holt, R-Baltimore. -30-