Maryland’s prison agency cites high costs to house mentally ill prisoners in isolation units

The cost of housing mentally ill and violent prisoners in solitary confinement units on Maryland’s Eastern Shore this fiscal year will be $2.8 million, the state’s budget officer told the General Assembly on Wednesday.

Those costs will come to $34.4 million next year, which amounts to $2.47 per inmate per day, said Jay Apperson, the budget officer. His comments came during testimony by Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Stephen Moyer.

Moyer was questioned Wednesday by the House Government Operations Committee about the department’s approach to housing mentally ill and violent inmates in isolated confinement units on the Eastern Shore. Those units, as of March, were housing 275 inmates who the agency said had a mental health disorder.

Apperson told lawmakers the prison system is suffering from budget cuts and just five officers to staff the units, leaving the inmates with the opportunity to assault one another with a single cell.

Other states have taken a different approach, he said. Under pressure from lawmakers and public defenders, Maryland moved to close its only two the segregation units to allow staff to focus on violent inmates.

“Sometimes we overmedicalize people in terms of acute mental illness that’s handled better outside the walls,” he said.

Apperson also told lawmakers about large populations in lockups on the Eastern Shore, a sign of a crime problem that isn’t being addressed. Over the last five years, he said, there’s been a nearly 30 percent increase in general population population at the state’s largest lockup, the Chesapeake Correctional Institution in Jessup.

On the Eastern Shore, Apperson said, there are currently about 2,600 offenders out of a total prison population of about 16,000.

Apperson said the budget for the Eastern Shore had grown by $33 million since 2015. He said the administration had tried to address the problem in the past by moving cases from to the Eastern Shore.

Sen. Jamie Raskin, chairman of the Government Operations Committee, said that that problem makes him uncomfortable.

“I don’t trust those people to do their job effectively,” he said.

Raskin and others pointed to the April suicide of Larry Paul DeGrado in a segregation unit at the Western Correctional Institution in Garrett County.

Prisons Secretary Stephen Moyer said he didn’t think the suicide was related to the Eastern Shore issue. He said it was the result of DeGrado trying to escape the facility when he was transferred from Eastern Shore to Western Maryland.

Moyer said in two separate incidents this year, guards in the Eastern Shore had to use pepper spray on inmates who had weapons. He said another incident was pending. Moyer couldn’t be reached for comment.

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