They called it “The Cut,” named for Jessup’s Cut, the community that straddled the B&O Railroad track that ran along the East Coast. But most people who referred to the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup by that nickname did so because of the maximum security prison’s controversial and often violent history.

Closed since 2007, the facility is now being demolished brick by brick, the 133-year-old prison’s dignified end a sharp contrast to its harried past. An inmate crew from a neighboring facility at the Jessup prison complex is being trained in asbestos and hazardous materials removal, learning skills that could be useful when they are released from prison. Workers are also salvaging bricks, beams and scrap metal to use for other prisons in the state system and are preserving artifacts.

The strategy has saved the state more than $100,000 in reusable materials and millions of dollars in demolition costs, according to Mark Vernarelli, public information officer for the Maryland Department of Corrections.

A second round of tours of the House of Correction is being planned following the success of a two-day tour during the first weekend in August when more than 2,000 visitors roamed the grounds and many more expressed interest in the remains of one of the state’s oldest incarceration sites.

Most of the visitors were Jessup residents, former employees and their families, and also family members of former inmates. The group included a judge and a former Baltimore City homicide detective who had played roles in sending criminals there, Vernarelli said. The crowd included penal and criminal justice scholars, as well.

“It was the first and only opportunity to look inside the storied institution,” Vernarelli said.

Built in 1879, the House of Correction was one of the oldest penal facilities in the state and at its peak, teemed with convicts from the Baltimore and Washington D.C. areas. It could no longer accommodate the volume of inmates housed there, he said.

“Historically, the two biggest jurisdictions, Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, send us more inmates than any other counties in the state,” Vernarelli said.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) shut down the House of Correction in 2007 as one of his first major acts in office. The move followed an attack on corrections officer David McGuinn, who died after he was stabbed by two inmates while on duty in July 2006. The officer’s death capped a long string of bloody incidents and escalating violence at the prison, where drug trafficking, gang activity and escapes were common. 

The result was a shuffling of the state’s 2,000 inmates to relocate 845 prisoners from The Cut.

“It was a tremendous, bold move to close it with such resolve and so quickly,” Vernarelli said.

The site still houses five correctional facilities: Patuxent Institution; Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup, a medium-security prison for males; Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, the only state prison for women; Brockbridge Correction Facility, a pre-release unit for men; and Jessup Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison for men.

“As many bad things that happened here, a lot of inmates changed because of the programs that were offered here,” Vernarelli said. “But that is never talked about. Vast education programs including GED and writing classes were offered and even Pell grants for those who wanted higher education. Those inmates are now leading productive lives as taxpaying members of society.”

Despite its demise, the reputation of The Cut lives on in an online archives and in references in popular TV dramas like “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Wire,” both based in Baltimore.

The railroad line, now owned by CXR, still runs within 200 feet of the prison.

Maria Morales

Special to the AFRO