Curtains for ‘the Cut’
Maryland shuts a prison and ends a nightmare.
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.