Inside the City Detention Center

The litany of horrors at the Baltimore City Detention Center reads like something out of Dickens. The short list:

Officials who routinely take life-sustaining prescription drugs away from new detainees – who then go weeks or even months without proper medical attention.

A woman who slipped and fell in the shower, breaking her arm, waited two weeks before she got her arm X-rayed and a cast put on. Inmates who must wash their clothes in toilets, complaining that if they use the prison laundry service, their clothes aren’t returned. Detainees subjected to severe overcrowding, putting them in close proximity to others with serious medical and mental health needs that largely go unmet.

While those problems have a distinctly 19th-century ring, there’s a 21st-century twist. The U.S. Department of Justice recognized the deplorable conditions in a 2002 report citing 107 different violations of health and safety and found that the Baltimore City Detention Center violated the constitutional rights of detainees. Inmates, the report stated, “suffer harm or the risk of serious harm from deficiencies in the facility’s fire safety protections, medical care, mental health care, sanitation, opportunity to exercise and protection of juveniles.”

And last but not least: About 90 percent of the population at the center is detainees who have not been convicted of a crime.

The Baltimore City Detention Center is the 18th-largest correctional institution in the country, admitting more than 43,000 people a year. To look after their rights in the face of the Dickensian conditions, the Public Justice Center created the Prisoners’ Rights Project in 2002. Wendy Hess, one of the project’s two coordinating attorneys, explained the reasoning behind the new effort by the Baltimore nonprofit legal service organization.

“Because the Legal Aid Bureau can’t represent prisoners [due to federal restrictions put in place in the mid-1990s], until this project began there was no one to give civil legal advice to detainees about conditions of confinement,” Hess said. “We’ve found deficiencies in every area – people with diabetes who can’t get insulin, inmates with HIV who can’t get their medications.”

One legal expert called the work done by the Prisoners’ Rights Project “vitally important.”

“The PJC focuses on the failure of detainees to get treatment and a whole range of problems for a population that’s largely cast-off,” said Ellen M. Weber, a University of Maryland law professor in charge of the school’s drug policy law clinic. “It’s especially inappropriate for people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. The PJC’s efforts are crucial for everybody. They’re very effective advocates for people with no voice.”

Instead of adopting an aggressive litigation strategy, the project has pursued individual inmate advocacy with the prison administration, both formally and informally.

“We learn a lot through interviewing clients,” said Levern Blackmon, a paralegal and client advocate with the project. “It was shocking to find out what’s happening – the lack of medical care, that if you come in with prescription drugs, they take them away from you.”

It’s especially shocking, Blackmon said, because “the jail has an obligation to give adequate medical care. They can’t not give you medication. It’s just human decency and I believe the jail really drops the ball.”

Compounding the problem is the isolation of detainees.

“Jail walls not only keep people in, they keep people out,” Blackmon said. “If you’re not exposed to the problems, you won’t know about them. But occasionally a John Q. Public goes in and gets the shock of his life.” Hess told of one such “John Q. Public,” a Loyola College graduate student. “He was diabetic, he didn’t have any insulin, and the water fountain was broken,” she said. “So he was offered juice – the worst thing for a diabetic. He almost went blind. It was definitely a life-threatening situation.”

Other health problems uncovered include denial of expensive HIV medications, boils and open sores exacerbated by washing clothes in toilets, infections from spider bites, and dangerously high summer temperatures in the BCDC’s Women’s Detention Center resulting in two lawsuits two summers in a row. “We work with the ACLU National Prison Project, which said this is one of the worst facilities they’ve ever seen,” Hess noted.

Much of the jail’s problems stem from overcrowding in a jail that includes buildings over 100 years old.

“Far too many people arrested for nonviolent petty crimes are denied their liberty because they can’t afford low bails or the bondsman’s mandatory fee,” explained Douglas L. Colbert, a law professor at University of Maryland School of Law and an expert on criminal law. “The PJC project should be congratulated for bringing needed attention to the jail conditions, including overcrowding, that people face while awaiting trial.” Reducing the jail’s population would have a cascading effect.

“With fewer people, the staff at BCDC could do a better job,” said Brea Robinson, a client advocate at the project. “When problems are identified, there’s no follow up and no oversight of the staff.”

That includes failures in providing even a minimum of health care. The community suffers when sick inmates are released, Robinson said. “They’ve been off their HIV meds, their mental health meds, they’re often addicted, and they’re released without a plan,” she said. “What do you expect an addict without treatment to do when he’s released at 2 a.m.?” In addition to working with individual clients, the project joined with the ACLU late last year to revive the portions of a 1993 consent decree in Duvall v. Glendening that require adequate medical care and proper maintenance of the jail. A hearing is scheduled in June.

Other hopeful signs are on the horizon. Hess pointed to HB 971 <>, legislation passed by the General Assembly that gives more tools to make sure jails comply with basic standards. “No one tool will fix it, but it should help,” she said. To put a human face on the plight of detainees at the jail, the project recently initiated a speakers bureau of former inmates.

“Their stories really are compelling and it lets the public know ‘this could be you,'” Blackmon said. “If the public knew about the conditions in the jail, they’d know we could do better than this. Denying people life-sustaining drugs is inhumane.”

For more information on the Prisoners’ Rights Project and the speakers bureau, call (410) 625-9409, ext. 222.

JOE SURKIEWICZ is the director of communications at the Legal Aid Bureau.