- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A decision to renovate the existing St. Mary’s County jail rather than build a new one could be revisited after this year’s election.
The St. Mary’s County commissioners vacillated last year about building a new and larger jail versus a less expensive renovation. A new jail went in and out of building plans.
In the end, three of the commissioners agreed to a $9.5 million renovation, rejecting a new $35 million jail. The state government would have picked up about half the cost for the new jail.
The jail renovation will not be underway by the time a new set of county commissioners takes office in December, county staff said. At least three of the commissioners elected in November will be new to the job.
Candidates for commissioner contacted this week said they would be open to taking another look at options for the jail.
Only one commissioner is returning to the board for sure: Todd Morgan (R) is unopposed in his bid for a second term. He supported building a new jail.
But would the state be eager to provide money again for a new jail after its money was turned down last year? The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services noted $523,000 in expended funds for design were lost to the state when the county commissioners canceled the new jail project.
The county jail opened in 1989 with a capacity of 230 inmates. The jail population has regularly exceeded that for years, jail warden Michael Merican said. In March, the average daily population in the jail was 240 inmates, he said. According to national corrections standards, the jail is considered overcrowded at 195, he said.
According to the state agency, St. Mary’s County had the most overcrowded jail in the last fiscal year in the state at 114 percent beyond capacity, followed by Carroll County at 113 percent and Garrett County at 100 percent.
When fights break out in jail, and they often do, inmates have to be moved away from each other, based on security levels, Merican said, and there isn’t room to do it. Moving one inmate often means having to move several others. Minimum-security level inmates shouldn’t be tossed in with medium-level security inmates, he said.
There is consensus among the candidates for county commissioner that something must be done. There is no air conditioning for either the inmates or the corrections staff, the locks are old and outdated, and new surveillance cameras are needed.
However, even if the planned renovation is completed, “I still don’t have any extra beds — it’s still over capacity,” Merican said.
The new jail project would have added 230 beds, doubling the capacity, to meet space needs through 2025. The state already had $5.5 million allocated for the new jail project, with more expected. When bids came in $7 million higher than the $24 million budgeted the commissioners changed their plans, ultimately turning down any state aid.
If the renovation work does begin, 60 inmates would have to be moved to other jails across the state, Merican said, and St. Mary’s County would have to pay those jurisdictions to house them. “They’re not going to do it for free,” he said.
Budget documents state it will cost about $101 a day to relocate a single inmate and they would have to be moved for three to six months at an estimated cost of $1.2 million to $2.3 million.
Commission President Jack Russell (D) joined Commissioners Cindy Jones (R) and Dan Morris (D) in March 2013 in opting for the renovation rather than a new jail. Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R) voted against the new jail in December 2012, but reversed his position thereafter.
Morris is not seeking re-election. The candidates for that seat in the November general election are Republican Mike Hewitt and Democrat Bob Schaller. Both candidates have met with the jail’s warden already, and both said Wednesday they are willing to look at the jail project again if elected.
“I didn’t realize we could turn it back on,” Schaller said of building a new, larger jail rather than renovating the old one. “I think we’ve got to relook at it. I see merits on both sides.”
“I would like to revisit the issue of a new jail with the board,” Hewitt said. “I’m open to looking at it again. When I saw the jail, I was amazed at the conditions — definitely poor conditions.”
Jones is running for the state senate and will relinquish her commissioner seat this fall. Democrat Merl Evans and Republican Tom Jarboe are running for that chair this November.
Evans, a member of the St. Mary’s County Planning Commission, said the commissioners’ decision to go with a renovation was “a missed opportunity.”
He said a new jail is a necessary part of the county’s infrastructure. “It would be in the best interest of the county to pursue it,” he said. “I think the $9 million [for the renovation project] is a Band-Aid and money poorly spent,” he said, because when the jail is eventually expanded, some of that renovation work will need to be torn out.
Tom Jarboe has toured the jail and said the renovation is costly and doesn’t provide for future needs. “It’s an expensive kick of the can,” he said. If elected, “I would support reviewing the two projects again.”
Larry Jarboe cannot run for commissioner again this year, as he is serving his third straight term. Republican John O’Connor and Democrat Joseph “Tony” St. Clair are running for that seat in the November election.
O’Connor said Thursday, “I would want to look at the costs associated for both.” He toured the jail in the summer “and the conditions are horrible,” he said.
With a background in law enforcement, O’Connor said, “I would definitely take another look at it and find the best solution for all. It is a need, not a want.”
St. Clair could not be reached by deadline Thursday.
Russell is running for re-election as board president. His opponent, Republican Randy Guy, did not respond by deadline Thursday.