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Federal Camps For You and Your Family: Pr. George's Questions Detention Center Plan

Washington Post

It is not the sort of development that political leaders had in mind when they pledged to improve life in Prince George's County: a federal detention center.

And yet three companies have identified sites in the county and expressed their interest in building and running just such a project for the U.S. Justice Department. One has gone so far as to hire lobbyists to argue its case.

The effort hit a snag this week when congressional negotiators added a provision to a budget bill saying that the Justice Department agency soliciting bidders had no authority to do so. Maryland lawmakers said they hope the move will stall, if not kill, the detention center proposal.

The Federal Detention Trustee Office has been seeking a private company to own and operate a 1,750-bed facility for prisoners awaiting trials, sentencing hearings and proceedings to determine immigration status. The detention center could be located in the District or in one of five Maryland counties: Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery or Prince George's.

Several companies have expressed interest in the project, including two based in Florida, Wackenhut Corrections Corp. and Correctional Services Corp., and Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America. Three sites have been suggested in Prince George's and one in Baltimore County.

But the request for bids has brought fierce opposition from local and congressional officials. Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) recently wrote a letter to the county's congressional delegation saying he was "absolutely opposed to any federal prison being sited for [Upper Marlboro] or any other part of Prince George's County."

"This facility would affect the quality of life and the public safety of all Prince Georgians," he said, a view echoed in a letter from U.S. Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) and Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) to Attorney General John D. Ashcroft.

Opponents aimed to stall the detention center effort with a provision added to the 2004 omnibus appropriations conference report saying the Office of Federal Detention Trustee cannot solicit bids for a center. The report could be approved in the weeks ahead.

According to the report, the Office of Federal Detention Trustee can use only existing state, local and private detention space to meet its needs. If additional space is required, the matter should be handled by the Bureau of Prisons, another arm of the Justice Department. Also, the report calls for setting up a task force to study the matter.

Prince George's Council member Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) was heartened by the news that the agency may have to hold off on its bidding process. "I'm glad that the feds are taking a stand," Dean said. "I was never enthused about a prison coming to the area. So I'm glad to hear that. I'm looking for different types of employment opportunities for this area."

Since the 1980s, state and federal officials have turned increasingly to companies to build and operate prisons, saying the ventures result in more streamlined operations and savings for taxpayers.

But the privately run prisons have also had their share of problems. Guards at a Louisiana juvenile facility operated by Wackenhut, for example, beat inmates and subjected them to humiliating punishments, a Justice Department report found several years ago.

New York officials slapped a $300,000 fine this year on Correctional Services Corp. for failing to report meals, trips and gifts it had bought for more than a dozen state lawmakers in its quest to renew contracts.

"We are not fond of privately run prisons," said Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch. "Liberty should not be put in private hands. It is profoundly troubling to have any part of the criminal justice system in the hands of people whose allegiance is not to the state. I wouldn't want private police or private judges."

Private prison companies said their projects bring jobs to a community as they save money for federal and state governments.

Steve Owen, a spokesman for Corrections Corporation of America, said the Nashville-based company has identified several sites for a federal detention center in the Washington region, although he declined to identify them. Tom Rapone, Correctional Services Corp.'s chief financial officer, said the company has told Justice officials that it would bid to locate the detention center in Dundalk, near Baltimore.

A spokesman for Wackenhut did not return two phone calls seeking comment.

In recent months, Wackenhut officials have turned to well-connected players in the Prince George's political world to help them generate support for their proposal to build the facility at Pennsylvania Avenue and Westphalia Road in Upper Marlboro. Wackenhut would need to win zoning approval from the County Council to build on that site.

The company hired the law firm of O'Malley, Miles, Nylen & Gilmore, a fixture in the county for decades, to represent it in meetings with officials. On the advice of John Davey, the firm's managing partner, the company also hired Charles Dukes, chairman of the Prince George's Economic Development Corp., who headed Johnson's transition committee.

Dukes said he notified Johnson of the proposal, and he and Wackenhut officials also met with council member Dean, whose district includes the Pennsylvania Avenue site.

Dean declined to take a position on the project, saying he would listen to all sides and make public his opinion if the matter comes before the council. Wackenhut officials, he said, sought to sell the project by saying it would create jobs in Prince George's.

But Dean said his constituents have also weighed in, telling him they're opposed. "What the community is looking for is quality economic development, and a prison does not constitute that," he said.

The Little Washington Civic Association in Upper Marlboro hosted a community meeting this month to discuss the project, and more than 200 people showed up anticipating a presentation from Wackenhut officials, said Darryl Harris, the organization's president. But Wackenhut officials did not appear.

Harris said the neighborhood already is home to several landfills. "We have so much. Now you're going to make us take a prison on top of that?" he said.

The prison companies also have expressed interest in sites at Cheltenham, where the state already maintains a juvenile facility, as well as in Brandywine along Route 301.

Jorge Martinez, a Justice Department spokesman, said that the agency is in the early stages of identifying a suitable location and that it would review opposition from political and community leaders. "Those views will be incorporated and taken into account," he said.

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