Citizens Concerned Over Jail Expansions

By Guy Leonard, County Times

HOLLYWOOD, Md. (Nov. 20, 2008)—The county sheriff, Board of County Commissioners and the state all say the expansion of the detention center in Leonardtown is a necessity, but the residents of Leonardtown don’t much like the idea.

County officials say that the jail’s population has grown to the point where the facility, aging and in need of upgrades as well as more space, is bursting at the seams.

Town officials and residents say the presence of a jail that will eventually hold more than 500 inmates, all within close proximity of seven schools, several churches, plus shops and neighborhoods, would be an unwelcome addition to what they want to become a bustling, prosperous small town hub.

The jail was meant to hold about 230 inmates but now has an average daily population of about 350. The expansion project would increase the size to 550 beds.

State figures show the local jail is 33.9 percent over capacity, according to Sheriff Timothy K. Cameron, which makes it the most overcrowded in the state.

Figures show that since 2001, the population in the jail has increased rapidly.

“At that rate, I’m not sure the projection for 2025 is accurate,” said Mayor J. Harry Norris about the time frame for the jail to reach its maximum capacity once the expansion is completed.

“I don’t think that development districts are the place for jails, let alone prisons,” Norris added. “[Town residents] need a commitment that this will be the last expansion.”

One town resident said concentrating on the project as planned meant that all other options to build there would be left out as a matter of course.

“We don’t want to see just this, but the other alternatives that are out there,” he said. “If you’re going to communicate with us show us the alternatives.”

County officials, including members of the commissioner board, said an agreement with the town, a memorandum of understanding, could likely be forged to prevent any further expansion at the current site after current plans are settled.

Cameron reiterated at a Nov. 13 informational meeting about the project in Leonardtown that this would be the last expansion of the prison because the current site could not accommodate further growth.

Norris complained that town officials and residents did not know anything about the expansion of the jail until 2006, though the project has been in the works since 2002.

“In retrospect we didn’t do enough communication work with the town,” Cameron told residents at the meeting.

Communication has always been a problem between the jail and local residents said Joan Ritchie, a resident in the Singletree neighborhood.

She remembered that when inmates would run away from the jail while out on work release they would not receive a warning, rather they would have to guess when police vehicles began to show up to search for the escapee.

A bigger jail will mean greater potential for problems, she said.

“We’ve never received a phone call when someone ran off from the jail,” Ritchie said. “The system failed, it didn’t work.”

Law officers at the meeting said security measures had been implemented since the last escape to help ensure it would not happen again.

Other issues beyond community opposition stand in the way of the jail’s expansion. The town government has said there is not enough wastewater treatment capacity at the Van Wert Lane plant to handle the increase in water use at an expanded jail.

County officials say they are exploring the possibility of using highly treated waste water that would not be used for drinking but rather for irrigation to ease pressure on the plant’s capabilities.

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