WASHINGTON – Maryland officials may have blocked a Justice Department plan to build a maximum-security federal prison in the Baltimore-Washington region, by adding language to a budget bill that would block the plan.
The language, inserted in the omnibus budget bill, would prohibit the Justice Department from soliciting any new contracts in the future to build a facility. The provision also forces the federal government to withdraw all four sites that had been under study for a 1,750-bed prison: Cheltenham, Brandywine and East Gate in Prince George’s County, and Dundalk in Baltimore County.
The amendment was added Tuesday to the omnibus bill, which includes the half-dozen budget bills that have not been approved for the fiscal year that started in October.
The move was announced Wednesday by Maryland Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes and the House members whose districts include Prince George’s and Baltimore counties: Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville, and Albert Wynn, D-Largo.
Hoyer said in a written statement that a federal prison “does not belong in Prince George’s County.” He said he was pleased that the House-Senate conference committee crafting the omnibus bill agreed to include the provision to “prevent the Office of Federal Detention Trustee from going forward with its solicitation.”
The omnibus bill is scheduled to be put before Congress for an up-or-down vote in the second week of December.
If it is approved, as expected, the Justice Department’s Detention Trustee Office will need to create a task force to study the need for new prison space. The bill also calls on the trustee to use existing state, local and private detention sites to build prisons in the future.
The provision also criticizes the way the trustee’s office determined “detention needs and costs” when it proposed a new jail, as well as the office’s attempt to contract with a private entity to build the facility.
Calls to the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons were not returned Wednesday. A worker in the trustee’s office referred calls to a spokesman who he said will not be in until Friday.
Prince George’s and Baltimore county executives, who came out against the proposed prison last week, welcomed Wednesday’s announcement.
Jim Keary, a spokesman for Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson, said that a new prison goes against the county’s “economic development strategy” and it would “negatively affect the quality of life and public safety for Prince Georgians.”
Likewise, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. is “very pleased” by the provision, said spokeswoman Renee Samuels, since the construction of such a facility goes against the economic “renaissance” of Eastern Baltimore.
“A waterfront jail is not part of that plan,” said Samuels, noting that the Dundalk site was on the water. “A jail would destroy those plans.”