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By Guy Leonard, The County Times
LEONARDTOWN, Md. -- In the past two weeks the mercury has been rising in St. Mary’s County and perhaps one of the most miserable places to be for all involved is inside the county jail, where high temperatures linger for days and there is no air conditioning.
Patrick Short, a current inmate, says he and those incarcerated with him are suffering from the oppressive heat in the jail as well as a lack of cold water being supplied by guards.
Short, who has an extensive history with law enforcement in this county alone, contacted The County Times twice in recent weeks to report that surcharges for the jail’s ATM machine are exorbitant and the food in the jail is substandard both in quality and quantity.
“Even though we’re inmates we’re human beings, too,” Short said in a telephone interview. “People are passing out in here due to the heat.”
Packets of dry noodles available at the commissary to supplement their diet are 80 cents apiece, he said, much more than at a supermarket and the menu is extremely limited, he said.
“We get potatoes or beans three times a day,” Short said, adding that milk provided to them went sour from the heat, too.
Capt. Michael Merican, correction division commander for the sheriff’s office, disputed nearly all of Short’s claims — though he did admit that sometimes milk does go sour and they do their best to replace it.
“We’re sorry, it happens,” Merican said.
But there is one thing he and Short agree on: the temperature inside the jail is nearly unbearable.
“It’s hot as Hell,” Merican said.
He and his staff have been trying to keep the conditions as comfortable as possible, but inside an old facility with no air conditioning it’s often a losing battle.
“We’ve been going to [a local grocery store] to buy ice for water,” Merican said. “The water fountains here aren’t like the one’s at Leonardtown High School, but it’s not hot.”
Merican said there have been no reports of anyone passing out and inmates in some sections of the jail are allowed to keep their cell door’s sliding portions open at night to at least let some air circulate from internal fans.
Prisoners are allowed this luxury if they agree to behave, which they usually do, Merican said.
Merican added that his correctional officers suffer, too, because they must remain in full uniform, while inmates are allowed to remove their shirts to deal with the heat.
County government has gone back and forth in a debate whether to proceed with a planned expansion and renovation of the jail, which would include an all new minimum security wing as well as internal security improvements like new locks and cameras.
Air conditioning is also a large part of the project that will bring the capacity of the jail to over 500 beds.
Current inmate population is now 264, down from nearly 330 a few years ago when the jail was rated over capacity.
In the past two years the state has given the county $5 million to begin construction on the minimum-security wing, but the project has not yet started.
As to complaints about the food served in the jail, Merican said he did not receive any complaints from Short about that or the heat before he went to the media.
But back in 2006 when Merican took over command of the jail, complaints about the food were common.
“We put the vendor [Swanson’s of Pennsylvania] on notice and since then we haven’t had a problem.”
Merican said there have been 10 documented complaints about the food service since 2009.
Sheriff Timothy K. Cameron, who also once headed the jail, said menus are prepared months in advance and have to meet strict dietary needs for inmates’ nutritional intake as well as any medical or religious requirements they have.
Menu lists show a greater variety than just beans and potatoes and inmates are afforded an average of 3,000 calories a day, 200 calories more than the state requires, Merican said.
Cameron said they often want more “but that’s not what jail’s all about.”