ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A rash of “fishing” for contraband — including drugs, weapons and phones — out prison windows has prompted the state on Wednesday to approve spending for metal screens in 96 cells at a Baltimore detention facility.

Inmates at the Maryland Reception Diagnostic and Classification Center in Baltimore had been breaching windows by lowering bedding or string to “fish” for contraband items from conspirators in the street below, the state prison system wrote in a request to the Board of Public Works.

The metal security screens are listed as an emergency expense because the detention center has seen an increase in contraband items such as drugs, cellphones and weapons entering the facility, according to the written request.

The screens will combat breaches on the fifth floor of the maximum security detention facility, said David Bezanson, assistant secretary for capital programs at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The cells getting the new screens are used for inmates entering the prison system and for those the center is holding, pending trial, who require the maximum level of security, Bezanson said.

Arnett Gaston, a former University of Maryland criminology instructor and one time commanding officer at Rikers Island detention center in New York, said fishing is one of the primary ways gangs exchange weapons, cellphones, drugs and information while members are incarcerated.

Fishing can also occur between cells and among any inmates, said Bezanson — the activity isn’t unique to gangs.

Bezanson said that the emergency request for funding Wednesday was to improve security in the selected cells by installing metal screens so that inmates could not physically fish for contraband. He said the building had not experienced this problem until recently.

Putting up screens is only helpful if they are impregnable, Gaston said. It will only stop the fishing problem if you can’t penetrate the screen with a sharp object.

The type and amount of contraband being brought into the Baltimore detention facility risks the health and safety of the inmates and staff, the state documents indicated.

“Contraband is a No. 1 issue in corrections today, because the population that is being held is trying to exploit any means to communicate with the outside,” said Bezanson.

The last serious “fishing” incident at the facility was reported June 4, and an emergency was declared June 13, according to state documents.

This is the second time in recent months that detention facility has requested emergency funding to address its fishing issue. At the Sept. 9 Board of Public Works meeting, the prison’s request for $498,202 to install woven mesh security screens on approximately 400 windows at the same Baltimore facility was fully funded.

The 96 metal screens, approved on Wednesday for an additional $165,600, are being installed as a result of inmates breaking through security glass to acquire contraband, Bezanson told the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service.

Certain cells had to be vacated as a result of this issue, creating capacity problems, the prison system wrote.

Gaston said sometimes the layout of the inmates’ cells makes a difference.

Fishing is more prominent in facilities built with cells adjacent to an exterior wall, Gaston said. It happens more often at night when there is less external movement.

In facilities where cells are built on the interior — or away from exterior walls — some trusted inmates who have been vetted and given work assignments “fish” if they are not being watched carefully enough.

The screens are intended to prevent communication between the upper floors of the detention facility and the outside world, Bezanson said.

What’s unique about this particular building, Bezanson said, is that the outside world is the sidewalk and it doesn’t have a perimeter. The hardened building exterior is the perimeter.

At the time of the Maryland Reception Diagnostic and Classification Center’s earlier request for funding to address the fishing issue, in September, the nearby Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center requested funding to address the same issue.

In September, the board approved five contracts for about $675,000 to stop a fishing problem at the booking and intake center.

Those contracts included installation of security cameras, netting on the facility exterior, lights outside of the building, and security screens and other updates on 586 of the facility’s windows.

The Baltimore booking and intake center is a state facility that runs pretrial systems in Maryland, Bezanson said.

The Maryland Reception Diagnostic and Classification Center doesn’t need these extra protections, Bezanson said, because the detention center already has lights outside, and the netting is not appropriate.

The Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center needs the netting because of its proximity to the Jones Falls Expressway, Bezanson said.

The best form of security doesn’t forget about the human element, Gaston said.

Technology — like netting along the exterior, cameras, and motion detecting sensors and lights — is only effective in creating good security if it comes with constant supervision and constant patrol.

“Inmates are ingenious, and I say this with (more than 60) years in criminal justice. If there is a weakness in your (security) system, (inmates) will try to find it and they will try to exploit it,” Gaston said.

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KATHERINE BRZOZOWSKI
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