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.