Attorneys for inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center say they're having trouble keeping tabs on clients as they are moved to comply with the recent order by Gov. Larry Hogan to shut down the jail.
Inmates are being shuffled from the jail into nearby buildings, including an annex building, a jail industries building and the women's detention center, according to Charles H. Dorsey III, the state's deputy public defender. Several housing units within the main jail building have been closed, he said.
Dorsey said moving inmates has complicated an already-difficult process of holding attorney-client meetings. "We are extremely concerned about client access," Dorsey said.
"It's an uncomfortable time for everybody," said Chris Nieto, a Baltimore defense attorney who visited clients at the jail this week. Nieto said sometimes he's had to go from building to building to find clients.
He said the transition is adding uncertainty to a process that already was "controlled chaos."
For defense attorney Thomas Maronick Jr., it took two days of questions and phone calls to track down one of his clients to prepare for an upcoming court hearing. Maronick said when he got to the jail, there was further confusion before his client was brought to him for a meeting.
"It was just a bit of a mess," he said.
While Maronick's client was eventually found, he thinks a better system needs to be put in place to keep track of inmates.
"There's some margin of error you have to give them because of the fact this was thrown on the staff ... I realize they're doing the best they can, but this could have been done better," he said.
Hogan announced on July 30 that he would shut down the jail, which dates to 1859 and has a history of corruption and violence. Dozens of inmates and correctional officers have been convicted in a conspiracy involving the Black Guerrilla Family gang, which was operating in the jail.
Hogan said it was better to shut down the jail than build a new one, which had been the recommendation of a state commission and former Gov. Martin O'Malley. The closure is expected to save taxpayers $10 million to $15 million annually, state officials say.
When Hogan closed the jail, his office said in a statement that the transition would not "negatively impact detainees' access to legal visits, and will give them a safer environment to await trial and court hearings."
As of last month, the jail, which houses defendants awaiting trial and inmates sentenced to fewer than 18 months, had a little more than 1,000 inmates, most of them awaiting trial. There are 105 public defenders who represent jail inmates, plus private attorneys.
The state has not disclosed details of when and where inmates are being moved. No date has been announced for when the moves will be complete.
"For security reasons, we cannot discuss any specifics. The operation is underway," said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. The state has run the jail since 1991.
The detention center complex includes Baltimore Central Booking as well as the Chesapeake Detention Facility and the women's jail, which will remain open. While state officials have not disclosed details of the shutdown, they have said people held at the jail would not be moved in with convicts serving long sentences, and men and women inmates would not be housed together.
The Public Justice Center, which brought a long-running lawsuit against the state over poor conditions at the jail, has not been briefed on transition efforts, according to its legal director, Debra Gardner.
The state is doing its best to minimize disruptions for inmates, including access to their attorneys, said Vernarelli, the state spokesman. He said he is aware of no complaints from relatives about family visitations.
"Moving this number of detainees presents logistical challenges, but our goal has always been to provide vastly better living conditions with a minimum of disruption," Vernarelli said. "If specific problems are brought to our attention, we will correct them as soon as humanly possible."
Stephen T. Moyer, the state's corrections secretary, issued a memo Aug. 4 to all state-run institutions — including the city jail — reminding the staff of the importance of attorney-client visits. The memo was issued after Moyer met with state public defender Paul D. DeWolfe Jr. about state-wide concerns about attorney access to clients.
Moyer said any difficulties encountered by attorneys are "unacceptable."
"Inmates are to be available at the scheduled time of the visit. Attorneys should not be made to wait an inordinate amount of time to see their clients," Moyer wrote.
Dorsey said facilities are also an issue. He said attorneys and inmates typically have used booths where they can talk privately and share legal papers. Some of the auxiliary buildings have these booths, but in some cases inmates have to be transported back to the main jail building to use booths there – adding another wrinkle in the complex logistics of setting up the meetings, he said.
"We've had problems having access to our clients in Baltimore City for decades," Dorsey said. "All of the other counties understand the importance of client-attorney visits to prepare for their cases."
About 80 percent of criminal defendants in the city a represented by public defenders, Dorsey said. Public defenders keep watch on the jail and were among those who praised the decision to close the facility.
Dorsey said the public defenders discussed their concerns about client access with state corrections officials and are hopeful the situation will improve. Increased staffing would help, he said.
"They have assured us that they are aware of our concerns and they will attempt to implement a policy that is access-friendly," Dorsey said. "We are in the process of seeing what they come up with."
Despite the bumps in transition, inmates are anxious to be moved out of the aging detention center, their lawyers say. Nieto said that at a recent sentencing hearing, one of his clients had just one question for the judge: He wanted to know how quickly he could be moved out of the jail and into prison.