A small state correctional facility tucked away in Charlotte Hall, as well as its sister facility on the Eastern Shore, are set to close pending the approval of Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposed budget, drawing the ire of the state employees’ union which represents most of the staff at the prisons.
The Southern Maryland Pre-Release Unit and its counterpart, the Eastern Pre-Release Unit in Queen Anne’s County, two of three state pre-release prisons which prepare inmates for their re-entry into society by acquainting them with jobs and skills training, were completely cut from Hogan’s fiscal 2022 budget, which is likely to pass with few changes.
The two institutions being cut will save the state $5 million, according to a budget document submitted by the governor’s office, which says a 25% decline in Maryland’s correctional population since Hogan (R) took office justifies the closure.
Mark Vernarelli, a spokesperson for the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, attributed the decline to the 2017 Justice Reinvestment Act, and said it had diverted “low-risk, non-violent” offenders from incarceration, freeing up space at the pre-release units, which are minimal security institutes.
The state will also “see savings of $18 million due to declining overtime costs within” the state corrections department.
State inmates who are approved for the pre-release units spend the last parts of their sentence — anywhere between 18 months and 3 years — at the small, low-security penitentiaries, said Sgt. Eugenia Stepney, a correctional officer at the institution speaking on the behalf of AFSCME Council 3, the state employees union which represents most of the staff at the prison.
“I know it’s about numbers up the road,” Stepney said regarding the prison’s closure. “It shouldn’t be about the numbers, it should be about the community.”
Stepney, a Calvert resident, said the closure of the prison, which was established in 1962, will adversely affect staff, inmates and the communities they work in, as inmates provide public services as a part of their re-integration.
To adjust to society and potentially pick up permanent work on their way out, the pre-release inmates work a wide range of jobs while incarcerated. Those jobs may consist of roadside trash pickup in Charles, Calvert and Prince George’s counties; spatting oysters with the Department of Natural Resources; sought after private-sector work-release jobs; and, volunteer farming at Serenity Farm with Farming for Hunger, a project that grows and distributes fresh food to underserved communities.
“It’s been great working with them,” Bernie Fowler Jr., who runs the Calvert-based Farming for Hunger, said, adding that the state correctional agency has informed him he will continue to get support from the department in some form. “It’s meant a lot to all the men who are working out there.”
The farm has hosted about 116 inmates from the pre-release unit and the Calvert County Detention Center, which provided a small labor force during the farm’s first year in 2012. Inmates have produced about 10 million pounds of food there over the years, Fowler said.
“I think everyone is a victim to COVID, too,” Fowler said. “It’s playing a big part into the budget and the decisions that would have to be made.”
All inmates at the closing units will be transferred, and all staff at the prison are being relocated, Vernarelli said.
Besides the Southern Maryland unit, the closest state prisons to the region are located in Jessup, as well as the last dedicated pre-release unit.
Stepney said that is likely too far of a drive for some of the Southern Maryland unit’s current staff, who mostly live in the tri-county area or Virginia, and that some staff are contemplating retirement from the already understaffed corrections department due to the shift.
“They don’t want to make that drive,” she said.