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Gov. Hogan announces 'immediate' closure of Baltimore jail

Hogan announces plans for "immediate" closure of Baltimore jail, says facility will be torn down.

Gov. Larry Hogan said Thursday that he will immediately shut down the decrepit Baltimore City Detention Center, moving inmates to nearby facilities and ending a long-standing "black eye" for the state.

The Republican governor said the Civil War-era jail — which is run by the state — could be torn down, and there are no plans to build a new facility. Baltimore's jail population has dipped in recent years, making room elsewhere for the inmates from the detention center. The move is expected to save taxpayers $10 million to $15 million annually, he said.

"The Baltimore City Detention Center is a disgrace, and its conditions are horrendous," Hogan said. "Ignoring it was irresponsible and one of the biggest failures of leadership in the history of the state of Maryland."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who was not consulted in the decision, said in a statement that she has "long had concerns about the condition" of the jail and would seek details from the Hogan administration about its plans.

The state took over the jail in 1991, and it has a history of corruption and violence. By 2013, federal and state authorities said it was effectively run by the Black Guerrilla Family gang, whose leader was recorded on a wiretapped phone call declaring, "This is my jail." Dozens of inmates and corrections officers were indicted and convicted.

The jail is part of a larger complex of corrections facilities just east of downtown Baltimore. The complex includes the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center and the Chesapeake Detention Facility, formerly known as Supermax. It also includes the women's jail, which will remain open.

Hogan pledged that corrections officers would not lose their jobs and would be reassigned to other facilities.

Just two years ago, the jail had a daily population of more than 2,000 male inmates awaiting trial or sentenced to less than 18 months. But the number as of Thursday had dwindled to 1,092, including 845 awaiting trial, according to a corrections spokesman.

The jail was in constant need of repairs, and corrections officials have long pushed for a better facility. As far back as 1938, city officials were calling for the building to be demolished and a new one erected. Designs for a new, 27-acre downtown jail campus were drawn up a decade ago.

Following the federal indictments in 2013, a special state legislative commission endorsed a $500 million plan proposed by former Gov. Martin O'Malley to knock down the jail and rebuild it.

Under O'Malley's 10-year plan to revamp the complex, construction of a youth detention facility was the first phase. The state Board of Public Works approved a $30 million plan for the new, 60-bed youth jail in May.

But Hogan, who took office in January, said that's the extent to which he is following any plan laid out by his predecessor. He said he did not take the legislative commission report into consideration and that consulting the legislature now would bog down the process. He ridiculed past administrations for not taking swift action.

Hogan said the shutdown shouldn't take more than "a couple of weeks."

"We know it's the right decision," he said.

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., a Democrat who co-chaired the legislative commission, said he was disappointed that the legislature and its recommendations weren't considered. He said they had taken a deliberate approach.

"It was the recommendation of the full bipartisan commission, not just a few members," DeGrange said. "If it's 'my way or the highway,' I'm concerned about that type of attitude."

Officials expect to begin transferring inmates quickly, though they declined to provide details or say where inmates would be moved, citing security concerns.

Detainees facing trial would stay within city facilities, officials said. As they are transferred, some convicted prisoners would be pushed to facilities outside the city.

The governor's office said in a statement that the transition will "not negatively impact detainees' access to legal visits, and will give them a safer environment to await trial and court hearings."

Officials set up a phone number and website to help relatives and friends locate inmates, officials said.

Civil liberties and watchdog groups applauded the decision. The American Civil Liberties Union and Public Justice Center asked a federal judge last month to reopen a lawsuit against the state over what they described in court documents as conditions so substandard that the jail brings "shame to this city."

David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, said he was "relieved that Baltimore detainees will no longer be forced to live" in the jail, which he said should have been condemned long ago. But he said "shockingly deficient" conditions exist in the remaining facilities as well, and must be addressed.

The Justice Policy Institute said closing the jail represents an "opportunity for the state to re-evaluate its spending priorities."

"Money no longer spent on incarceration could be, instead, used to deliver beneficial services to a population that is in dire need of them," the center said in a statement.

But others raised concerns about the logistics and problems that could arise from such a major undertaking in a short time frame.

Elizabeth Alexander, a Washington-based attorney who worked on the federal lawsuit, said her "immediate concern" is that staff could lose track of inmates' medications and serious medical conditions. She said problems often occur during initial medical screenings and when inmates are transferred from intake to the detention center.

"Since I have no reason to suspect that medical care is better in any other local correctional facility, I am greatly concerned that the short-term effects of closure, absent the most careful planning and reform, will exacerbate the medical and mental health failures to which detainees are subjected," Alexander said in an email.

The jail received international attention in April 2013 when prosecutors indicted corrections officers, inmates and others in the wide-ranging federal case. Of those indicted, 13 were women working as corrections officers.

The indictment detailed how gang members maintained sexual relationships with corrections officers — resulting in multiple pregnancies — and smuggled cellphones, tobacco, drugs and other contraband into the facility. It also described how Tavon White, a member of the Black Guerrilla Family, took control of the prison gang at the jail.

Corrections officers were rewarded for facilitating the underground economy with payments, gifts or a share of the profits, federal prosecutors said. Police said the conspiracy allowed gang members to run their criminal enterprise inside and outside the jail.

Forty of the 44 defendants have been convicted in the racketeering conspiracy. Three were acquitted, and one died.

Corrections experts who followed the scandal said such prosecutions can only do so much. A full-scale reformation of the jail would have taken several more years, they said.

Corrections officials have pointed to continued improvements, but Hogan was unequivocal that he believed the facility continued to be a disaster.

Other corrections employees and inmates have been charged in contraband smuggling cases since the 2013 indictment. In one case, a corrections officer was caught with heat-sealed packages of contraband in his shoes and groin area.

Some changes have been made at the jail. After the scandal broke, state officials pledged to adopt recommendations from a legislative commission on fixing the jail and improving management of Maryland's prisons. Reforms included more training for officers and better screening of people coming into facilities.

New surveillance cameras were installed at the Baltimore jail, and technology was activated to block the contraband cellphones that gang members used to coordinate their activities.

During this year's General Assembly session, some Republican lawmakers advocated returning control of the jail — and the cost of maintaining it —to the city.

Sen. Michael Hough, a Republican representing Frederick and Carroll counties, said he hoped Hogan's decision to close the jail represented the first step toward such a transition.

Hogan, however, said he is not contemplating giving the city control over corrections facilities.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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