The placement of the Harford County Detention Center at the intersection of two of the county’s major roads seems appropriate.
Just as Route 924 and Route 1 converge a few hundred yards from the county’s only corrections facility, the detention center is now the crossroads of a rapidly growing suburban community and regional law enforcement efforts. The combination has, over the years, dramatically altered operations at the facility, and the lives of those who work and are incarcerated there.
The biggest change will come later this year, when a major $29.3 million expansion of the facility comes online, increasing the detention center’s capacity to approximately 800 inmates from about 500. According to the sheriff’s office, the new wing will also include expanded medical and in-processing facilities and add additional, modern maximum-security and isolation cells.
The Dagger was offered a tour of the detention center following the August suicide of Jeffrey L. Lawson, who had been incarcerated there after an abortive bank robbery attempt. Lawson hung himself for several minutes before being cut down by corrections officers, and died later at a local hospital. Not long after, another inmate, accused murderer Michael Jones, was attacked by other inmates and sustained a fractured skill before deputies could break up the fight.
Sheriff’s office officials hoped the tour would help us shed light on life inside the detention center’s walls, and bring our readers a better understanding of the facility’s goals, processes and struggles. I visited the detention center twice; once in late October, and again in late February.
What follows is not intended to be the final, comprehensive word on the detention center. Two brief visits to an operation as logistically—and, for some, emotionally—complex as a jail is not enough time to make any blanket pronouncements. There are too many different worlds which co-exist alongside each other, and only those inhabiting each world are best able to define them.
Instead, The Dagger presents a brief glimpse into each as accurately as possible, and leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions—if they haven’t already.
A note to the reader: In both visits to the facility, security policy did not allow me to bring notebooks, writing implements, or even a voice recorder inside.
Furthermore, I took the pictures of the detention center’s interior, but the images were reviewed by Harford County Sheriff’s Office staff to ensure that they did not depict any security measures, such as the position of video cameras. Also, inmates were not allowed to be shown in photographs in order to protect their privacy, according to sheriff’s office spokeswoman Monica Worrell. A handful of shots that did were deleted, and other proposed shots were denied for the same reasons. Abiding by these restrictions was the deal we struck to be allowed to take images inside the detention center, and the very first images from inside the unfinished expansion wing.
Our look inside the detention center will be presented in two parts: first, an examination of a few facets of an inmate’s life behind bars, followed by a glimpse at the challenges faced by Harford County Sheriff’s Office correctional officers and Sheriff Jesse Bane.
The World of the Incarcerated
The path of a person recently arrested and brought to the Harford County Detention Center is laid out in materials provided by the Sheriff’s Office:
The initial point of entry for all persons arrested is the Interagency Processing Center. An arrestee is brought into a secure sally port and an exchange of leg irons is conducted. While in the IPC, the prisoner is fingerprinted, photographed, has an Iris Scan to verify identification and a criminal history will be conducted to check for any wants or warrants. If the arrestee is sober and cooperative, they will be taken to a court commissioner located adjacent to the IPC and a bail will be set or the arrestee may be released on his/her own recognizance (Local resident, employed, family, type of charge, etc). If the arrestee is released on their own recognizance or can post the bail amount, and they have no other pending charges they will be released from the facility at that time. The processing of prisoners by IPC personnel permits the arresting agency to place their law enforcement officers back into service with minimal down time, saving an average of 45 minutes per prisoner.
If the arrestee cannot post bond, they will be taken to the booking side of the IPC. Information will be entered into a database, various forms will be completed, and all personal and clothing items will be taken, listed and secured in a property room. A strip or intake search will be conducted, depending on the type of charge and an inmate uniform will be issued, along with basic linen and toiletries. In most cases male arrestee’s will be placed into the classification holding block to await an interview with a classification counselor to determine permanent housing. Certain individuals may be placed into alternate housing areas depending on their demeanor, the amount of bond or the notoriety of the crime.
Arrestees with more serious charges or excessive bail amounts are normally housed in the maximum security cell block areas. Less serious charges warrant housing in medium security dormitory style housing. Inmates on active work release are housed on the lower level in minimum security dormitory style housing, as are inmates who are assigned to internal and external details. Three DSU (Direct Supervision Units) on the upper level house inmates who have been classified as minimum security and in certain cases medium security. One DSU is reserved for female inmates.
A sense of unusual gloom pervades jails in movies and on television. But, visiting the inmate housing areas of the detention center, it’s hard not to be reminded of the stereotype.
In the maximum-, medium-, and some lower level minimum-security areas, the lights are left off for much of the day, even in the brightest noon hour. During my first tour, Michael Capasso, then a captain and the facility’s operations commander and now a newly-promoted major and the assistant warden, said this is done at the prisoners’ request. Many like to sleep or rest during the day, which is difficult with the bright overhead lights on. Still, the effect is unsettling—picture how odd your own home seems when the power goes out on a bright afternoon, with poorly-lit corners taking on a new appearance. Now add bars and an aging, institutional décor.
The four maximum security blocks in the existing jail are four long rooms, spokes off of a central area which houses a secured control room for deputies to monitor inmates. The blocks are separated from the central area by massive metal doors that look as if they could take a bomb blast without much trouble.
The edge of each maximum security area has a narrow walkway for corrections officers to move the length of the room. Inside, metal bunks are stacked barracks-style. Next to them, long plastic objects, similar to sleds lie on the ground. These are temporary beds, used to provide extra capacity when needed until the detention center’s expansion is complete.
Before entering the detention center, Capasso cautioned that inmates may make comments at me, or attempt to act out in other ways. Walking into the maximum security cell block, there was a definite buzz in the air, even with the fluorescent lights off. But none of the inmates said anything to me, at least that I could hear, though eyes were locked on our group from the moment we entered until the moment we left.
Each maximum-security cell block houses 16 inmates, overseen by corrections officers who have to enter the block to check on the inmates. But the new expansion will offer a very different maximum-security setup. Rather than long rooms and dormitory-style bedding, the new maximum-security blocks will be similar to the lower-security direct supervision units, with two-man rooms surrounding a common area. There, two 12-bed units will be overseen by a single officer seated in a secured room between the two units.
Although we did not enter them, seen through a window, the medium- and minimum-security areas are similarly dimly lit. Inmates pass the time by napping, reading, watching TV or, in one minimum-security unit, clustered around a video game system I couldn’t identify. I’m told it’s a privilege some inmates are allowed during their time in the detention center, but I can’t help but think that some members of the public might disagree with the practice.
(UPDATE: In response to several reader comments, I asked the Sheriff’s Office for further clarification about what I saw at a distance and through a small window, a seated individual holding a small object in his hands attached to a cord running out of sight, amid a group of other inmates. As I was not allowed to enter the cell block at the time of the original tour, I mentioned what I saw to Capasso, asking him if it was what it appeared to be, a group of inmates playing a video game. At that point, according to HCSO spokeswoman Monica Worrell, a “miscommunication” occurred. She claimed Capasso indicated that video games were possibly allowed as a privilege at other facilities, while I believed he said that video games were allowed as a privilege, period. The object in question was an electric hair trimmer, Worrell claimed, which she said met safety standards and was allowed to inmates during certain hours and inspected upon its return.)
In a direct supervision unit, all eyes were once again on our group. Here, up to 48 inmates occupy a two-story space lined with small two-person rooms surrounding an open area of tables. A pair of phones and a few showers occupy another part of the wall.
Inmates milled around, talking to each other or watching TV, or reading a book at a table. The setting feels open, and inmates are free to move about the room throughout the day, with some restrictions. A single deputy oversees the group.
In the new expansion, one direct supervision unit will house inmates with behavioral issues, individuals who are currently scattered around the various units.
The one area my tour did not include was the isolation unit, four single-person cells adjacent to the maximum-security cell blocks. Both times I visited the detention center, the four cells were occupied—not an uncommon situation, I was told.
Depending on their specific factors, inmates have access to a variety of programs and work details. According to the Sheriff’s Office materials:
Program availability for inmates includes Work Release, GED, Anger Management, Open Doors, A.A., Bible Study, Church Services, Health Awareness, Drug Awareness, Life Skills, Overcomes, Workforce Readiness and Commitment to Change.
Detail availability for inmates includes Maintenance, Hall trusty, KP duty, Meal Server, Laundry, Commissary trusty and Warden’s Special detail. Maintenance trusty’s assist throughout the County, to include the Food Pantry, beautification projects, lawn mowing and litter clean-up in the Edgewood area.
Visiting is conducted three days per week, with each inmate allowed one thirty minute visit per week. Exercise videos are shown daily, and outdoor exercise is available when weather conditions permit. The DSU [direct supervision unit] areas have an exercise yard adjacent to the housing area, with access controlled by the DSU officer.
A debate over the approach—and even the need—to re-socialize prison inmates has raged nationwide for years, but the detention center has positioned itself as a proponent of education in life skills for its inmates. As high schools increasingly turn away from vocational training in favor of college prep and placement, those who don’t attend an institution of higher learning often don’t receive training in the skills they’ll need in the real world.
Capasso noted that, for some younger inmates, the detention center’s programs are the first encounter they have with balancing a checkbook or learning the basics of everyday adult life in society.
“This place is full of opportunity, and we’ve seen that grow throughout the years,” he said. “It’s not fluff, these are programs the inmate population genuinely benefits from.”
Though inmates sentenced to 18 months or more in prison serve their time at a state or federal institution, the detention center is still a temporary home to many individuals either alleged or convicted of committing a wide variety of crimes. From minimum- to maximum-security, all ages and races are represented.
According to statistics collected by the detention center for participation in a re-entry program, in 2010:
–86 percent of the inmate population is male
–58 percent is white
–67 percent is single
–the average inmate age is 32
–39 percent of those arrested are employed
–60 percent have a high school education
–58 percent are serving time on a sentence, as opposed to awaiting trial
–the average sentence is six months
–the most common charge is possession of a controlled dangerous substance, followed by second-degree assault and driving under the influence
Later, I note the mix and variety of inmates to Capasso. He said that the crimes they’re imprisoned for are equally diverse, and not limited to the usual small-town misdemeanors.
“The inmate population no longer consists primarily of those who failed to show up to a hearing or got into a fight at the local gin mill,” he said.
“Not only have the numbers [of inmates] quadrupled, but the brand of inmate has grown to worsen,” he said. “No one’s thinking of new crimes, there’s just more of them.”
It’s a new challenge for the corrections officers assigned to guard them, guard them from each other, and help transition the willing back into society.