Cur­tains for ‘the Cut’

Mary­land shuts a prison and ends a night­mare.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

PRAC­TI­CALLY ev­ery decade brought its share of fresh hor­rors at “ the Cut,” Mary­land’s chill­ingly nick­named, max­i­mum- se­cu­rity House of Cor­rec­tion in Jes­sup. Ri­ots in the ’ 40s and ’ 60s; es­capes in the ’ 70s and ’ 80s; knif­ings, beat­ings and homi­cides through­out. A Vic­to­rian relic of ob­so­lete de­sign, hid­den nooks, nar­row cat­walks and leaky roofs, the 129- year- old prison should have been closed years ago, but suc­ces­sive gov­er­nors and cor­rec­tions chiefs could never quite find a way to do it. That’s why the abrupt, level- headed de­ci­sion to shut it down, made by Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley ( D) on the ad­vice of his new head of cor­rec­tions, Gary D. May­nard, is all the more wel­come.

It’s not un­heard for states, act­ing on their own, to close down ob­so­lete, dan­ger­ous, over­crowded pris­ons, but it’s rare. When states do take such steps, it tends to be un­der the pres­sure of lit­i­ga­tion or tight bud­gets. In the case of the Jes­sup fa­cil­ity, the trig­gers were the mur­der of a prison guard last year and the stab­bing of an­other last month — on top of three in­mates be­ing killed by fel­low pris­on­ers last sum­mer. It’s a pity that it took those latest bloody episodes to com­pel the de­ci­sion to shut­ter the prison, but you can’t help but be pleased at the out­come. Among those who breathed of sign of re­lief at the clo­sure were par­ents, fac­ulty, other staff and stu­dents at Jes­sup El­e­men­tary School, di­rectly across the street from the en­trance to “ the Cut.”

Clos­ing the fa­cil­ity was a mat­ter of good judg­ment, good plan­ning and good luck. The good judg­ment was re­flected in the state’s back­ing away from an ear­lier plan to con­vert the prison to a min­i­mum- se­cu­rity fa­cil­ity over the course of some years. The good plan­ning was re­flected in the ex­e­cu­tion of the clo­sure it­self, which was car­ried out with im­pec­ca­ble at­ten­tion to se­crecy and se­cu­rity and ac­cord­ing to an elab­o­rately chore­ographed sched­ule. And it was the state’s good luck that new prison ca­pac­ity has lately be­come avail­able in west­ern Mary­land, which helped in re­lo­cat­ing the 842 pris­on­ers who had been kept at the House of Cor­rec­tion. In ad­di­tion, the clo­sure prompted the state to trans­fer nearly 100 hard­ened in­mates to max­i­mum- se­cu­rity in­sti­tu­tions out of state, in Vir­ginia and Ken­tucky. That is not an ideal ar­range­ment and will mean ad­di­tional hard­ship for the in­mates and their fam­i­lies. But un­der the cir­cum­stances, it is an ac­cept­able price to pay.

Vis­i­tors to “ the Cut,” so named be­cause of a rail­way cut into the nearby coun­try­side, of­ten re­marked that it re­minded them of ev­ery fright­en­ing prison movie they’d seen. It was bet­ter suited for am­bushes than con­fine­ment. A few in­mates had lately fig­ured out how to de­feat the mech­a­nisms on their cell doors, mean­ing “ the Cut” was fail­ing the most rudi­men­tary test of any prison: stay­ing locked. By end­ing this in­glo­ri­ous chap­ter in Mary­land’s pe­nal his­tory, Mr. O’Mal­ley and Mr. May­nard served the state well.

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