Long before Baltimore became a city, it served as a county seat with both a courthouse and a jail. Its first public prison was built in 1768 at the intersection of Madison Street and the Jones Falls. A new jail, to be built on the same site, was planned when the city was incorporated in 1797. Approved by the General Assembly, this structure was designed and completed in 1808 by Robert Carey Long.
As the city grew, the jail was enlarged and remodeled as needed until 1856. In that year construction began on a third building, part of which remains today. Designed by Thomas Dixon, in the architectural style of the time, castellated Gothic, whose high walls it was hoped would deter any thoughts of escape, the new jail took three years to complete. Located at Buren and Madison Streets, near the Maryland State Penitentiary, the jail was hailed as "a progressive step forward." Prior to 1859 the original jail housed prisoners together without regard to age or criminal experience. In addition the new jail cells were constructed to provide separate and solitary confinement so that prisoners "could commune with their souls and reflect over their wickedness."
From the outset the jail was owned and operated by both Baltimore City and Baltimore County. Two groups directed this joint operation: the Levy Court of Baltimore County from 1768 to 1820 and the Visitors of the Jail of Baltimore City and County from 1820 to 1853. By November 1853 the joint operation between the city and county had dissolved and in its place a separate, city-owned and operated Baltimore City jail was established. It was governed by a board entitled the Visitors of the Jail of Baltimore City. This body later became a division of the Department of Charities and Corrections, created by the 1898 city charter. Since 1949, the jail's operation has been the responsibility of an independent Jail Board.
The majority of prisoners during the pre-Civil War years were jailed for disturbing the peace and drunkenness. People were also being locked up for the most insignificant of causes, all of which contributed to the jail's ever-present chronic problem, overcrowding. For example, among the jail's prisoners were six children incarcerated for stealing a cup of sugar, and a man imprisoned for four months for stealing a rope valued at three cents. In 1859 the Visitors of the Jail called for an end to the arrest and imprisonment of persons for such trivial causes. They also recommended that before someone was jailed significant proof be brought against that person. Unfortunately, these proposals were not implemented to alleviate the crowded conditions.
With the advent of the Civil War a new population was consigned to the Baltimore City Jail, Confederate prisoners-of-war. They became the second largest component of the prison population, after that of inebriates and disturbers of the peace. During 1862 the jail processed 650 POWs; this total increased to 1,1154 for 1863. During the final two years of fighting the jail saw the Confederate POW population decline to 462 then 322 prisoners, respectively.
The remaining years of the nineteenth century saw the prison population grow from a daily average of 241 in 1865 to 647 in 1899. Faced with such a marked increase, the jail managed to obtain the funds to construct an annex in 1885 to house their women prisoners. But overcrowding still remained the dominant problem into the early twentieth century. In 1901 the jail reported housing as many as 820 prisoners when they only had room for 356. In addition, throughout this time, wardens frequently complained about the deteriorating internal conditions of the jail. Corrective measures taken, using mostly prisoner labor, included repairing prison walls, improving the ventilation system, building a new kitchen and painting the jail.
While the jail and the city grappled over how to combat overcrowding, they did make some key administrative decisions. One was to scrap the city's patronage system of electing the warden and replace it with the merit system. The beneficiary of this new law was Harry C. Martin who, after working twenty-five years for the jail, became the first warden under this system in 1925. Two years later Grace M. Hartnett became the first woman elected to the Visitors of the Jail Board.
After World War II, the voters approved a 2.5 million dollar bond issue for renovating the city jail. When the renovation was completed in 1946 Mayor McKeldin urged that the new jail segregate first offenders and young inmates from older and repeat offenders.
Because of overcrowded conditions, Baltimore City voters again in 1952 approved a 6 million dollar bond issue to construct a new jail. After arguing for two and a half years where the new jail would be built, the city approved the Jail Board's recommendation to rebuild the jail on its original site.
Another significant administrative change that occured in this period was the establishment in 1949 of the Jail Board. The Board consists of six members all of whom are appointed by the Mayor to four year terms. Their function is to maintain and manage the Baltimore City Jail. And one of the board's most important duties is to appoint the warden and his assistants.
The next three decades witnessed the modernization of the jail's security measures.as well as other significant construction projects, such as the four-story Women's Detention Center completed in 1971 and the 1983 renovation of the jail's food service building.
At present one of the jail's main emphases is upon rehabilitation of prisoners. In 1980 the jail initiated family day whereby family members could spend several hours in the jail recreation yard visiting prisoners. The jail felt that close family ties should have a strong influence on keeping ex-offenders from criminal activities. Another important program is the Eager Work Release Center which allows qualified prisoners to keep working while in prison. In addition to these efforts the jail still maintains its responsibilities for pretrial custody and care and pos-trial short sentence care and custody.
For additional information see Jacob H. Hollander, The Financial History of Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1899); John Thomas Scharf, History of Baltimore City and County, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1881); Annual Reports of the City Jail, and Baltimore City Jail Scrapbooks (RG64 S1).