Behind the Bars: The Changing Worlds of the Harford County Detention Center, Part II

A typical two-person cell in one of the detention center expansion’s Direct Supervision Units.

The Dagger‘s exclusive look inside the Harford County Detention Center and its major new expansion concludes here, with Part II. If you missed Part I, you can find it here.

The World of the Officer

At one point this past Fall, corrections officers were forced to deal with an inmate in isolation who began throwing his feces at the deputies.

A few days later, Capasso said, they rushed to stop the same man from taking his own life.

It’s a particularly stark example of what a corrections officer faces in a place that requires they maintain both a taciturn distance from inmates, but also an intimate knowledge of what’s going on in their lives.

Maj. Michael Capasso, reflected in one of the detention center’s corner mirrors.

Capasso will mark 25 years of duty at the detention center this year, a career that most recently saw him promoted to major and named assistant warden of the facility in February. He said that duty at the detention center is attractive to some because corrections officers can begin serving when they’re 18, while recruits to other areas of the Sheriff’s Office must be 21.

But, of course, the job isn’t for everyone. Capasso at one point compares the facility to a submarine, and it’s not hard to see why—in just a few hours walking around the interior, twisting, daylight-less hallways, I had already begun to lose track of time and my place in the world. Add to the mental challenges the obvious physical concerns, and it’s understandable why there’s usually a demand for corrections officers.

That job title itself has evolved throughout the years. Once simply called “guards,” the modern detention center employee prefers “correction officer.” The difference is more than just political correctness, I’m told. The modern corrections officer is responsible for far more than just guarding inmates; they also work to address their existing issues and help them reclaim a place in society after their release.

But within the detention center’s walls, the officers’ day-to-day interaction with inmates seems to be focused on maintaining a kind of knowledgeable separation; knowing what’s going on with a group of inmates doesn’t necessarily mean personal interaction whenever it’s requested.

As we toured a maximum-security cell block, an inmate saw Capasso pass by, and attempted to get his attention. Capasso, not breaking stride, responded with a simple, “unavailable.” He said that type of exchange is common, and that another officer would check in with the inmate during scheduled rounds, and find out what they wanted.

Along the same lines, a deputy we meet overseeing inmates in a direct supervision unit is expected to know those under his watch well. Part of his job is defusing incidents before they happen—knowing when a brewing conflict is about boil over, when an inmate might have received some bad personal news and want to act out, or picking up on subtle or not-so-subtle clues that one inmate or group may have a problem with another. But the deputy stands at a computer console, and inmates are not allowed to approach within a set distance of about two feet of the station unless invited by the deputy overseeing the room.

Officers make “well-being checks” every half-hour to, “ensure inmate well-being and sanitary housing conditions,” according to Sheriff’s Office materials. The entryways to various units and other points along the wall are studded with small metal rectangles with a round stud in the center. Each corrections officer carries with them a small pin which they press against the stud while making their checks, allowing a central control room to monitor their movements and create a record that the rounds are in fact occurring.

But before an inmate even reaches their housing unit, the Interagency Processing Center plays a key role in determining the level of security an inmate will require, and identifying potential points of conflict. Capasso said IPC personnel work to identify an arrestee’s gang affiliations, prior convictions, personal associations and other facts and combine them to determine the most appropriate place for that inmate to be housed.

The unfinished, unfurnished fingerprint and photo room in the new detention center expansion.

Still, incidents do occur, despite the facility’s precautions. Capasso pointed out that, from the moment an incident occurs, there’s still a response time required for corrections officers to rush from one secured area to another and intervene.

Part of the initial intake facilities for inmates in the new detention center expansion.

He added that it’s “not mathematically possible” for officers to stop an incident instantaneously, and that the detention center’s processes have been “examined, reexamined, polished,” to get, “the most out of officers without overloading them.”

Before our tour, he pointed out a collection of plaques and certificates on the wall of the detention center’s office. The certificates show an ongoing streak beginning several years ago in which the detention center has achieved 100 percent compliance with an audit conducted by the state’s Commission on Correctional Standards. The certificates were an easily apparent point of pride for Capasso, who said the achievement is evidence that an independent review found the facility was in fact getting the most out of its corrections officers.

The World of the Brass

When Sheriff Jesse Bane calls to talk about my tour of the detention center, he’s eager to knock down the facility’s reputation as the “Harford Hilton.”

“What did you see there?” he asks me. “Does it seem like a place you’d want to spend a lot of time?”

Of course, it’s not. But his desire to both tout the progress the detention center has made as a social institution and, at the same time, strike down the notion that it’s a kind of highly-secured community college is understandable.

We spoke two weeks before the Nov. 2 general election which saw Bane, a Democrat, narrowly win re-election over Republican challenger Jeff Gahler in a campaign which grew acrimonious in its final stages.

Bane emphasized his department’s efforts at curbing recidivism and, in partnership with outside providers of various programs, giving inmates what they need to keep them from a return visit to the detention center.

The effort is more than just society-friendly policy, he said—or what less generous critics might call progressive liberalism. A study conducted when work on the expansion began estimated that the new wing would fill up by 2020, Bane said. But he believed it could reach capacity as soon as 2016, because the study was done before the effects of the Army’s Base Realignment and Closure program, which will bring tens of thousands of new arrivals to Harford County, were fully known.

“At best, in nine years, it’s going to be full—we need to find some other way,” Bane said. “We can’t expand the current site, and I don’t want to go to the community and say we have to build another facility somewhere else.”

Along with the influx of new residents from BRAC, the sheriff’s office has also seen an increasing number of criminals from out of state crossing into Harford County on the I-95 corridor and getting arrested here.

Among them is Brandon Pegram, a Virginia man who in early February led sheriff’s deputies, Maryland State Police troopers and other agencies on a wild chase down Route 40 and up I-95. Pegram was captured only when a state trooper used his vehicle to disable Pegram’s car.

Pegram has been incarcerated at the detention center since that time, facing two counts of first-degree assault, two counts of second-degree assault, and two counts of reckless endangerment, among other charges.

A new maximum security cellblock at the detention center expansion.

Though individuals such as Pegram may never spend significant time at the Harford County Detention Center, the facility still has to be prepared to temporarily house such inmates, and others accused of more serious crimes the local community sees only rarely.

Another cause of the population swell, Bane said, is due to the detention center’s increasing role in providing social services scaled back or cut from other areas, such as mental health assistance and drug treatment centers. Increasingly, he said, the detention center and its officers have had to redefine their roles to make up the shortfall.

“The jail is a homeless shelter, a mental institution, and a treatment center. 60 percent of the inmates fall into one of those categories,” he said. “When we put those individuals in there, maybe, just maybe we have some space to put some criminals in, too.”

The Changing World

The detention center expansion could be turned over to the sheriff’s office sometime in the next four to six weeks, according to Lt. Michael Siler, who has been the department’s liaison to the multitude of planners and contractors involved in its construction. Then, the slow process of moving equipment, files, staff and eventually inmates into the new facility will begin. Siler said that move could last through the spring and into June, barring any delays.

A new Direct Supervision Unit in the expansion wing.

So far, Capasso said, inmates and staff alike have been patient with the growing pains of construction and eager to get into the new wing. The new amenities for staff and upgraded facilities for inmates include an expanded medical unit, indoor exercise facilities, and a much more modern maximum security unit.

The new wing will mark a new era in the history of the Harford County Detention Center, a place which has evolved over the years to cope with new demands. For the inmates it houses, the corrections officers it employs, and the leadership it challenges, the world is about to change once again.

Comments

  1. Carl Phillips says

    Good info and updates on HCDC progress.
    I have driven past the site for years and wanted more info on what the contruction involved. I have much better handle on their mission as well as improvements to infrastructure.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  2. Terrance says

    Wow, great article, Aaron. Pretty interesting to see what it’s like on the inside.

    I wonder why you couldn’t bring a pen and paper in there, but you were allowed to take pictures.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
    • says

      In response to your question, I asked the Harford County Sheriff’s Office for the exact reasoning on this. The explanation I got was that a pen or pencil could potentially be used as a weapon by inmates, who are given a special type of safe writing instrument to use when necessary.

      Also, they said the department’s policy is not to allow any video, audio or photos from inside the facility. However, the sheriff authorized an exception for our story, so we could attempt to show our readers what the interior of the detention center looks like.

      Thanks for reading, glad you’ve enjoyed the stories.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
      • says

        Unless you were permitted to roam about inside the DC unescorted, which you probably were not, then the reasoning you got for why you could not have a pen, pencil or paper was just a bunch of hooey!!!

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
      • anon says

        My guess is that special type of safe writing implement is a euphamism for a tupperware container with some broken crayons.

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. king of common sense says

    The safety pens are just the inside of a bic pen placed in a small piece of rubber hosing. If you tried to stab someone with them they would just bend in half unlike a regular pen.

    You’d be amazed at how fast a journalist that is trying to take in as much of the experience as possible can sit a pen down and walk away without realizing it. Even with an escort, there are enough safety concerns to deal with already without adding any objects brought in by the reporter.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
    • says

      @King

      Have you had many occasions with reporters sitting down pens and walking away because they were caught up in the experience? If the escort is doing their job, the reporter will not be able to sit a pen down and walk away. You are correct, I would be “amazed” if a reporter sat down their pen and walked away!!

      Do the Officers have pens? How often do the Officers sit down their pens and walk away?

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  4. king of common sense says

    Officers..very rarely. The real concern is the medical staff, and you can tell the difference if you know what you’re looking for. Volunteers that come into the facility on a regular basis use the safety pens, so it is not suprising that a one time visitor had to leave theirs outside.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. king of common sense says

    None that I’m aware of but that does not mean we should allow it to happen. They are usually found during the routine shakedowns before an incident occurs.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
    • says

      @King

      Well you do allow it to happen. If Officers and Medical Staff are permitted to have pens, and sometimes sit them down and walk off, then you have ‘allowed’ it to happen.

      I’m not suggesting you change anything regarding your policy, only pointing out how silly it was to ‘escort’ a reporter through the facility and not let them have a pen to take notes. From the article written, it would seem that the reporter was escorted by Major Capasso. Perhaps Capasso could have loaned the reporter his pen. But then Capasso would have had to worry that the reporter would sit the pen down and walk away.

      Sounds like this is one of those ‘Good Grief’ rules. But that would only make it one of the many Good Grief rules for the HCDC.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
      • HarshReality says

        @ Retiredawhile,
        There are way to be many “silly rules” at the detention center. Things happen/slip through the cracks, despite these rules. Regular pens and other items come in and out all the time. Either by medical staff, civillian staff, officers, contractors, etc… etc… Inmates steal these items every so often. They usually get found later. The inmates also make their own pens that do not bend. Not much is done about it really. It’s a crap shoot as to which policies get followed or not at any given time.

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
        • says

          @Harshreality

          Thank you for being up-front and not taking the politically correct line of defense for a silly decision. The HCDC has for years not dealt with the ‘people’ who cause problems, but rather attempt to put in place a procedure that curbs the potential for someone to be just plain dumb. Some of the policies are effective and others not so much. The good Officers, and other Staff, along with the volunteers understand the need for vigilance and practice it all time. This does not prevent the dumb ones from doing dumb things, regardless of the policy.

          I’m sure both you and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

          Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
      • DW says

        It’s a secure facility. The rules are there to protect officers, civilian staff, and inmates. Some of the rules may seem “silly,” but they exist for a reason. Just because inmates sometimes get stuff they shouldn’t have (or make weapons, etc out of stuff they’re issued) doesn’t mean that they should just stop enforcing them.

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
        • says

          @DW

          Yes all rules exist for a reason. Because it exists for a reason, does not make it a good rule. For the most part people support and consistently follow good rules. Most rules that don’t make good sense are ignored most of the time. Smart and dedicated people know the difference, and practice good work habits each and every day, regardless of the rules.

          Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
        • HarshReality says

          @DW

          You say “secure facility” like there are not items that aren’t supposed to be there brought in by everyone? A lot of rules would have to start being enforced for them to stop being enforced. There are exceptions to every rule and usually more often that not the people that make the rules are the exceptions. Do as I say not as I do, right? Once one exception is made the rank and file follow suit. As RETIREDAWHILE says, the good people can usually determine what are the important rules and what aren’t. Allot of Bullsh** rules are created in the name of safety that normally doesn’t affect any ones safety, and a lot of rules that do affect safety aren’t followed because it’s to much of a hassle. It all sounds pretty hypocritical to me..

          Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. truthfactor says

    This link gives you the perfect explanation of our growing detention center.

    http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/04/07/jealous.prison.reform/index.html?hpt=Sbin

    The republican party that currently runs our county has redistricted our youth to prevent proper education, they are cutting back on education and focusing on incarceration. Democrats of Harford County – we must once again band together for the next elections and rid ourselves of the republican menace that threatens our county, our country and the youths of both. Get rid of all republicans, that includes the sheriff, the state’s attorney, the judges, the county executive and any other entity that threatens the development of our county. Do not let them spend all our county’s money on incarceration, use the money for education!

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
    • says

      @Truthfactor

      The Sheriff is an Democrat and enjoys massive support from the African-American community in Harford County. Why do you want to get rid of Sheriff Bane?

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
      • truthfactor says

        You can claim he is democrat all you want, but his actions show otherwise. He is subserviant to the ideas of his republican masters and that makes him a republican! He no longer has the support of the black community in Harford County as we have become wise to his scams! No democratic sheriff would allow for the racist actions of his department. He believes he can pull the cloth over our eyes but we have seen him for what he really is, a rich white old republican that has made a living on the demise of the african american community during his administration. He will not win another election………..

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
      • claimjumper says

        Hey retiredawhile, you never have anything good to say about Bane. Why don’t you want him to be sheriff? Over and over you have criticized his policies and handling of his deputies. You are an antagonist that keeps stating that he has overwhelming black support yet it seems that alot of blacks reading the dagger show otherwise. What point are you trying to prove and once you’ve made your point, will it make you feel any different?

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
        • says

          @Claimjumper

          I have no problem with Jesse Bane being Sheriff. He won the election, so be it.

          I do not believe Sheriff Bane is a racist, nor do I believe, as many posting on the Dagger seem to believe, that Bane runs a racist organization. That is why I point out that Bane received a large majority of the black community vote in the past election. If he were a racist why would the blacks vote for him? Seems a bit odd don’t you think? My belief is that those who post such crap on the Dagger are talking out their butt, and probably have never voted or participated in a positive way in their community in their entire life.

          Just because Jesse is not a racist, does not mean I agree with all that Jesse does. His handling of the Forwood case is an example of where I disagree with the Sheriff, and I have stated why. In the end he did what he should have done in the beginning, and that was to fire Forwood. He did it before Forwood had his day in court, and he did it just as I said he would do after the election was completed. This was a political decision and cost the taxpayers of Harford County a lot of money.

          I also do not believe that the recent promotion of a Lieutenant to the grade of Major (skipping the grade of Captain) was good management. What does it say about all of your Captains, that none were as qualified as a junior lieutenant to serve in the grade of Major? Keep in mind that most of those Captains attained their grade during the previous four years of Sheriff Bane’s administration. I hope Major Presberry is very successful and wish her well. But again, what does that say about those Captains, and the promotion system through which they attained their grade? As for me, I would like to think that the promotion system was not influenced by the political system, and I would hope that you would feel the same way.

          There you have it. I’m not on a campaign to remove Sheriff Bane from office, but I am entitled to my opinion, and from time to time I state my opinion.

          Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  7. TaxpayerHarfordCo says

    I had a cousin locked up at the HCDC. He said the inmates there are allowed to make unlimited phone calls every day. He said the HCDC policy about this is so screwed-up and they don’t even require inmates to enter any ID #’s when calls are made. Inmates supposedly are on the phone for 15 minutes per call.

    Who is the Warden and why hasn’t he changed the policy to limit inmated calls? Making phone calls other than to a Defense Attorney is not a requirement, its a priveledge. Why hasn’t our re-elected Sheriff examined these outdated policies? Perhaps its time to get a new Warden, such as someone with no connections to the Harford County political scene.

    Some of you out there must have more info on this.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
    • says

      As a taxpayer in Harford County why would you have an issue with inmates at the HCDC making phone calls? This is a money maker for the County.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. king of common sense says

    @taxpayer The phone system for inmates is a prepaid account that they pay for. This system is handled by an outside company that is a standard for correctional facilities.

    @retiredawhile While you sound like a nice person and I’m sure you were a great officer in your time, your attitude towards security procedure and “picking and choosing” which policies to follow make me glad that you are retired and I hope it stays that way.

    To those that say that Bane is not a democrat, I would like to see how you feel when we have a republican sheriff. Bane is %110 focused on rehabilitation programs, community outreach programs, or just about anything with the word program attached to it. His hug-a-thug nickname came from the republicans views about him being extremely left wing.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
    • says

      @King

      Rest assured that I plan to stay retired. If you believe that your fellow officers don’t pick and choose the rules to follow each and every day, then you need to get around more often. I don’t encourage anyone to ‘not follow the rules’, but I realize that as humans we don’t always follow them, and as humans we don’t always make good and effective rules that accomplish what we intended, or those that had unintended consequences.

      You can say it ain’t so, but it is what it is. Be safe!

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
      • says

        just found this forum unfortunetly i found myself on the wrong side off the law back in 2000 and found myself doing almost two years inside most of which was done in HCDC some thing must have drasticly change, as i can asure you it was no hilton. fond memeriese off cappasso he could be very aragant and aggressive one miniute and very kind and understanding the next like to meet him one day he gave me the nick name lord hampshire (as that was where i was from england) the first english detanee and the last i hope at harford. i can asure every one its no hilto
        regards lord hampshire

        Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0