ANNAPOLIS – As the state prepares to close its adult Supermax prison arguing it is a relic of the past, some critics are charging Maryland just opened a new juvenile version.
The Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition claims the long-awaited, $45 million, Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, which opened its doors Oct. 30, has the same large, sterile, hard feel of the Supermax prison and an inadequate outdoor recreation area.
“What we have witnessed here is the construction of a prison,” said Jim McComb, a member of the coalition and executive director of the Maryland Association of Resources for Families and Youth. “It was designed as a prison and built as a prison. It is a prison.”
Mary Ann Saar, Maryland secretary for public safety and correctional services, called for the closure of the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, better known as Supermax, last month. The maximum security prison, which houses the state’s most violent adult offenders, has become increasingly obsolete as the trend in corrections moves away from simply warehousing prisoners and toward rehabilitation.
Prisoners in supermax spend 23 hours a day in lock down and do not have access to adequate counseling, drug treatment or education – all things Saar and other reformers believe are important to smooth a prisoner’s re-entry into society.
Juvenile justice advocates say detainees at the Juvenile Justice Center could face similar problems if state officials are not careful.
The opening of the 244,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art center – which houses classrooms, a computer lab, a booking center, the Baltimore City juvenile court and the juvenile divisions of the state’s attorney and public defender – was seen by officials and advocates alike as a big step toward reducing overcrowding elsewhere and as a way to keep juveniles near their families.
“This was a facility that was 15 years in the making,” said LaWanda Edwards, spokeswoman for the department of juvenile services. “It was built a certain way so that all of those agencies could function as well. It wasn’t built just for us.”
The center is designed to house juvenile offenders temporarily before their court date. The average stay is expected to be about 26 days, which is on par with other state facilities, said Phyllis D. K. Hildreth, managing director of the center. However, some young offenders in other facilities have spent months waiting for placement in rehabilitation and treatment centers.
One of critics’ biggest complaints about the center is its size and structure. It was designed when larger prisons were favored.
“This (facility) is architectural malpractice,” said Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center.
“We believe in small, 24-bed units and what we got was a hard, 144-bed facility,” said Maceo Hallmon, coalition chairman. “It is a hard facility with steel doors, computer-operated lock down and no windows.”
The Department of Juvenile Services has repeatedly addressed the size issue by pledging not to fill the center to capacity, but the advocates say there is an “if you build it they will come” mentality.
“One thing we know about detention facilities is that they will be filled. . . . It is a very difficult thing for judges and others to resist filling beds,” Soler said.
Instead of a large, sterile facility, advocates would like to see a smaller one where youth offenders can personalize the space with books, wall decorations and other personal possessions.
“A good facility is one that takes pains to make it look as much like home life as possible,” Soler said.
He pointed to states like Missouri, which has smaller detention centers and allows personal items.
“A very stark environment has a psychological impact on the kids and it tells them that they are prisoners,” Soler said.
“The advocates need to remember this is not a committed facility, this is not a place where they will stay for any length of time,” Edwards said. “They are getting comfortable, warm clothing and three meals a day and there is structure and consistency in their lives that many have not had before.”
Edwards also disputes advocates’ claims that the outdoor area is inadequate.
“They will get plenty of exercise,” Edwards said. She noted the huge gymnasium area and said there are many programs set up to keep the detainees busy.
Soler said he believes the playground area is too small, and added it has just one basketball hoop. He acknowledged there is a very nice gymnasium, but said there is a difference between being in a gym and being outdoors.
“For kids that are locked up for a couple of days getting to look outside and see the sky is important psychologically,” he said.
The advocates concede the administration is doing the best it can under the circumstances, especially since the facility was not designed or built under their watch. But they worry about what may happen based on the problems with other youth facilities in the state.
Hallmon and the other advocates say they think Hildreth is a good person for the job and they trust her word, but are anxious to see what will happen when the center is fully operational.