Assaults climb at Baltimore Central Booking since city jail closing

Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, the first institution people are brought to after being arrested in the city, has seen a spike in assaults since Gov. Larry Hogan closed the City Jail, state statistics show.

Assaults by inmates at Central Booking, both on staff members and on other inmates, jumped in the 12 months that ended June 30.

Few disputed Hogan’s decision to begin shutting down the decrepit and dangerous Baltimore City Detention Center in July 2015 — a process completed this month.

Parts of the state-run facility were more than 100 years old, and its obsolete design made it difficult for officers to monitor inmate behavior. Its porous security invited rampant smuggling of contraband, and in its final years the Black Guerrilla Family gang virtually ran the institution.

In 2013, federal prosecutors indicted dozens of corrections officers, inmates and civilians outside in a scheme to smuggle contraband into the facility.

But records show that as the jail was shut down, much of its violence moved to other facilities.

Leaders of the union that represents officers at Central Booking say the institution is crowded with more difficult arrestees, who previously would have been housed at the jail. They say growing staff vacancies have forced officers to work more overtime, impairing their efficiency.

Gary W. McLhinney, director of professional standards at the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said a recent transfer of officers from the last adult building closed at City Jail to Central Booking should help alleviate the problems there. He said the transfers have reduced the vacancy rate to 2 percent.

But McLhinney did not agree with the union’s contention that vacancies made the facility less safe.

“We’re not making the connection between staffing and assaults necessarily,” he said.

Central Booking takes in and processes a range of arrestees from alleged shoplifters to murder suspects. Corrections officials say it’s a more dangerous combination than in the state prison system, where convicted criminals are classified and sent to institutions with the appropriate level of security. As inmates get used to the prison system and its rewards for good behavior, officials say, they grow less prone to violence.

“That pretrial population is much more volatile,” McLhinney said. “What we’re seeing there is more violent individuals.”

Department statistics show that prisoners find a wide variety of ways to assault staff. The most common attack is punching, closely followed by spitting and pushing. Officers were also hit with crutches, handcuffs and, in one case, a broom.

Department Secretary Stephen T. Moyer, who took office in 2015, said Thursday that “we’ve created safer environments for our correctional officers.”

Records show that assaults on department staff statewide dropped from 620 in fiscal 2016 to 563 in 2017.

But state records, obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public information request, show rising assaults at Central Booking and other facilities that have taken on detainees who would once have been held in City Jail.

There were 82 assaults on staff members at Central Booking in fiscal year 2017, a 52 percent increase over the 54 reported in 2016.

The pace of assaults on staff at Central Booking picked up over the second half of the fiscal year: There were 55 reported between January and June. The numbers peaked at 17 in May — more than any month in the last three years.

Inmate-on-inmate assaults rose from 196 to 262, a 33 percent increase. The institution saw an especially violent stretch early this year, with 106 assaults on inmates from January through March.

The increases were sharper when compared with fiscal 2015, which spanned the last seven months of the O’Malley administration and the first five under Hogan. State corrections officials say that comparison is misleading because the department tightened up its assault reporting policy early in fiscal 2016.

That could help explain why inmate-on-inmate assaults at Central Booking jumped from 16 per 100 average daily population in fiscal 2015 to 26.75 in 2016 — making it by far the most violent state-run prison or jail in Maryland.

The increases in assaults came even though state records show a decline in average daily population from 794 in fiscal 2015 to 729 in fiscal 2017. That’s an 8 percent drop, roughly in line with the drop in the state prison population over the same period.

The records provided by the department show a surge in vacancies at Central Booking after October 2015. That month there were 21 vacancies, but a year later there were 50.

“They had a mass exodus of people who were so unhappy with the administration,” said Lisa Speight, president of AFSCME Local 3737, which represents officers at Central Booking. “They’re running people off with their bad performance and bad management.”

Speight said Central Booking became more dangerous after City Jail was closed.

“There’s nowhere for the overflow from Central Booking to go,” she said.

Speight said the fifth floor of Central Booking, which had housed only male prisoners, was converted to a dormitory for women. She said mentally ill women, who formerly had their own unit in the Women’s Detention Center, were mixed in with the general population on that floor.

Charles Weiner, an assistant public defender who works at Central Booking, said his clients tell him that mixing all the women there has led to less privacy and more confrontations.

“I suspect that until they are more appropriately quartered, the women will face a higher risk of encountering trouble,” he said. “Although additional staff might help control behavior and add a measure of safety, it won’t provide the space, comfort and privacy that our clients should have.”

The public safety department said it had cut vacancies to nine out of 400 allotted positions as of July 7. Department spokesman Gerard Shields said the closure of the detention center’s Jail Industries building on Aug. 1 allowed authorities to transfer officers to Central Booking.

Richard Parker is special assistant for corrections at AFSCME Council 67, which includes the union local that represents officers at Central Booking. He said he hadn’t heard of any influx of new officers at the facility.

“The rate at which they’re drafting officers has not changed,” he said.

Parker said heavy overtime work takes a toll on officers. He said the prisoners know when officers are fatigued.

“It emboldens the inmates to engage in illicit criminal activity or to take action against the officers,” he said. “They’ve got 24 hours a day to plot and plan anything of their choosing.”

The increase in assaults at Central Booking in fiscal 2017 came as assaults at the City Jail fell along with its population. At the jail, assaults on officers dropped from 70 in 2016 to 36 in 2017. Inmate-on-imate assaults dropped 12 percent — to 153 — as the average daily population fell by more than half.

Other facilities that accepted prisoners from the jail also saw more violence. The increase was especially apparent at the Metropolitan Transition Center — a part of the Baltimore correctional complex that handled an additional 300 pretrial inmates per day between 2015 and 2017.

Inmate-on-inmate assaults at the transition center jumped from 61 in 2016 to 105 in 2017. Assaults on staff increased fom 27 to 34.

Officer Robert Smead has worked at the center for six years. When the state closed the jail, he said, his facility ended up putting people who had been housed in cells in 74-bed dormitories.

“You’re dealing with a different population,” Smead said. “Now they have people who come in right off the street.”

In some cases, he said, the dorms end up housing people from rival gangs. Often, he said, the facility has to mix people accused of serious crimes with those charged with lesser offenses.

Steve Geppi, who headed the department’s intelligence unit until he was ousted in late 2016, said the sudden closure of the jail brought problems to the other institutions.

“That shutdown was the most abrupt, disorganized operation you can ever imagine,” Geppi said. “There was very little thought put into it. It was a mess.”

Parker said the jail was closed without clear plans to redistribute its prisoners. He said many of the defendants housed in Central Booking shouldn’t be there.

“In my view, it’s a tragedy waiting to happen,” he said. “You can’t just have all these conditions that create a perfect storm without some serious level of danger coming to fruition.”

McLhinney disputed the charges of disorganization.

“Just because people didn’t know about it doesn’t mean a lot of planning wasn’t going on,” he said.

He said leaders at Central Booking are on top of the situation.

“They do a pretty good job of monitoring the temperature every day,” McLhinney said. “But it’s a jail, and nobody detained there wants to be there.”

mdresser@baltsun.com

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