ECI 25 Years Later: From Controversy to 'A Blessing'
Daily Times - Online, The

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WESTOVER -- When the first 50 inmates arrived at 3 p.m. on Aug. 12, 1987, it seemed that all eyes were on the state's newest prison, which had been fraught with controversy and divided Somerset County during the two preceding years.

Now hidden behind a buffer of trees that has grown tall and lush over the past 25 years, few people ever see -- or worry about -- the Eastern Correctional Institution, which has become the largest prison in Maryland and one of the biggest economic engines on the Lower Shore.

The facility now houses 3,202 inmates, employs about 1,000 area residents and has an annual operating budget of $102 million.

The effect has been felt throughout the region as employees relocated here, bought houses, shopped in local stores and sent their children to local schools and colleges.

Danny Thompson, executive director of the Somerset County Economic Development Commission, said ECI became even more important to Somerset County following the closings of the Mrs. Paul's Kitchens and Carvel Hall plants in Crisfield in 1989.

"It's been a major blessing for the county," he said. "We're fortunate to have them."

Before ECI

In the early 1980s, Somerset County was in an economic slump due to the decline of the seafood industry, and its unemployment rates were in the double digits, Thompson said.

In 1982, the Somerset County Commissioners learned the state was looking for a site for a new prison, and they wrote to Gov. Harry Hughes asking him to build it in the county, with the hopes of attracting jobs to the area.

But the decision wasn't very popular, said Ronnie Dryden, one of ECI's original employees.

"It was very controversial," said Dryden, who is now assistant warden. "The community was pretty much divided."

Dryden remembers the late Earl Warwick, then a County Commissioner, as being a great proponent of the prison.

"He was instrumental in bringing it here for the sole purpose of getting some jobs," he said.

However, members of the Eastern Shore Delegation opposed the plan because the decision was made quickly and without impact studies, but they were able to get a number of concessions that were helpful to the county.

Since the main goal was to bring jobs to the county, a bill was passed that allowed prison officials to award an extra five points to Somerset residents who took the state test for jobs at the new facility.

The state also gave land to the county for a new detention center next door to ECI.

Probably the most important concession was the establishment of a $200,000 fund set up to cover any damages caused by the new prison. It was put into use a month after ECI opened, when the state begin reimbursing nearby property owners whose wells failed when the prison put additional stress on the Manokin aquifer.

Residents get jobs

Once the decision was made to build the new prison in Somerset County, the state began recruiting.

"The economy was not that great around here and some of us took advantage of it," Dryden said.

Several local residents, including Dryden, were hired in 1984 and sent to Hagerstown for training and to begin work in a prison there while they waited for ECI to open.

Meanwhile, ECI's first warden, Wayne Winebrenner, arrived in 1985 and set up offices in the county office building in Princess Anne while the new prison was under construction.

As the opening of ECI neared, the state began hiring in earnest and set up a special correctional officer training academy in Princess Anne.

The first class of 48 correctional officers -- the majority of whom were Somerset County residents -- graduated in April 1987, followed by several more classes.

By the time ECI opened, there were 700 staff members -- 400 correctional officers -- including Somerset County Administrator Doug Taylor, who had just gotten out of the Army and had returned home looking for a job.

After graduating in the second class in the academy, his first job was guarding the back sally port, which was used as a construction entrance for the West Compound which wasn't completed until 1988.

In that first year, Taylor said he sat on a cinderblock all day with a shotgun, but by the time he retired, he had been promoted to lieutenant.

"From my experience it was great for the county," he said. "It provided a good salary and benefits to a lot of families."

While Taylor and most of the other original employees have since retired or left for other jobs, 90 of them still work at ECI, said Mark Vernarelli, a prison system spokesman.

Fear turns to curiosity

While some residents still had fears about the new prison, Somerset County public school officials bused students in grades 1 through 12 to tour the facility in the months before it opened.

And fear didn't stop about 13,000 people from touring the prison the weekend before it opened.

A Daily Times story on Aug. 10, 1987, reported that so many people showed up for an open house that traffic on Route 13 had been backed up from the prison entrance on Revells Neck Road all the way to Kings Creek.

Prison staff soon ran out of refreshments and correctional officers who had been giving guided tours finally gave up and let the public walk through on their own.

One staff member told the newspaper they had been overwhelmed by the turnout.

"I'm just glad we're not getting inmates in at this rate," he said.

25 years later

In its 25-year history, there have been no over-the-wall escapes or major disturbances at ECI, although a minimum security inmate who was allowed to leave the fenced area to work in the kitchen building walked away from his job in 1991. His girlfriend turned him in a few months later.

Growth at the prison has continued through the years, and in 1993 a 604-bed minimum-security annex opened, which employed an additional 118 people.

A year later, Poplar Hill Pre-Release Unit in Quantico became part of ECI's operation.

The combined inmate population of the facilities currently stands at 3,334.

Although the state owns a lot of land surrounding the prison, there are no plans for any further expansion within the next few years, Vernarelli said.

But the growth outside the prison walls continues, including the addition of new curriculum in recent years at public schools and colleges, Thompson said.

The Somerset County school system now offers a protective services program at the J.M. Tawes Technology and Career Center, while Wor-Wic Community College operates the Eastern Shore Criminal Justice Academy and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore offers a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

But Dryden said perhaps the biggest growth has been in public acceptance of the prison, including in 2010 when County Commissioners agreed to end a 23-year ban on allowing inmates to work outside prison walls.

Since then, inmates in the ECI work release program have worked in local parks, police stations, fire halls and for nonprofit groups all over Somerset County.

Dryden said the inmate crews are now in constant demand.

"It took 25 years to get work crews, but now they can't get enough of them," he said. "It's taken a long time to calm fears."