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Youth jail plans moving forward, O'Malley says

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Gov. Martin O'Malley said that plans for a new youth detention facility in Baltimore are "moving forward" and described the current building as "a very old and decrepit facility."

Momentum is building in Annapolis to fund a new 120-bed jail for youth who are charged as adults, which has ignited anger from activists who decry conditions at the facility but say the state should be building schools for children, not prisons.

"When we try to address the issue, it becomes a political football," O'Malley said Monday morning on WTOP-radio's "Ask the Governor" program.

Youth advocates and attorneys for the detainees say the adult jail continues to be an unsafe place for youths and that building a new facility won't change issues of poor supervision.

"We are very concerned about the continued problems at Baltimore City Detention Center's juvenile section," said James Johnston of the public defender's office. "BCDC's own reports show that several recent instances of violence were completely preventable. I was deeply troubled when I read the incident reports."

The Baltimore Sun obtained reports documenting two recent brawls that broke out at the jail that involved warring factions.

In an Aug. 26 incident, at least nine detainees from the "north" section of the jail ran through an unlocked door while a corrections officer was using the bathroom and began fighting with detainees held in another area of the jail.

"Several direct orders were given by all officers for the detainees to stop fighting, which they did not comply," the report says. A corrections officer suffered a hand injury, and the detainees involved were taken for medical evaluation.

Two days later, a security supervisor, Capt. Kevin Hargrave, balked at bringing juveniles from the "north" side to class, which is held in trailers within the complex, saying he "predicted a fight among the juveniles from the north side and the south side would occur" based on "many statements that have been made by juveniles stating that they intended to fight if placed in the same setting with the other juveniles," the report says.

But the detainees were brought there anyway, and at 12:20 p.m. one detainee struck another with a closed fist in the back of the head. Five others then retaliated against the first detainee, and in a second classroom detainees also began fighting, with one striking another with a chair. Ten inmates were handcuffed and removed, the report shows.

A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said the facility "has been, and continues to be safe," and that an "exhaustive review" took place after both incidents.

"Fights between detainees, and even multiple detainees, are a fact of life in the correctional environment. They happen in both adult and juvenile populations," said spokesman Rick Binetti. "In this situation, jail administrators took swift and corrective action to ensure the safety of the detainees … including an exhaustive review with all custody staff on policy and procedures related to supervision of this population."

In July, The Sun documented some of the conditions at the current facility, including assaults, lax oversight by correction officers and stifling heat. One 16-year-old detainee reported losing a tooth in a fight and then having to administer first aid on himself. Others said they slept on the floor during a three-day power outage.

After that report, the detainees were moved to a different building in the complex with air conditioning, a move that officials said had been in the works for months. U.S. Justice Department officials also paid their first visit to the jail since reaching an extension on an oversight agreement in April.

The protests haven't swayed officials from their belief that a new facility is needed.

"Everyone would agree that regardless of the horrific nature of the charges, we have an obligation ... to uphold minimum standards," O'Malley said. "This facility does not meet those standards."

jfenton@baltsun.com

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