Mixed reaction to lack of funds for new Baltimore jail

Does Baltimore need a new jail? Depends on who you ask.

Defense attorneys in Baltimore say they often have to search among a cluster of state correctional buildings to find their clients. They have to whisper legal strategies to them because there's not enough private space. And access to inmates depends on the rules of the building they are visiting.

But while some say Maryland should build a new Baltimore City jail to replace the current makeshift arrangements, others say there are better ways to spend limited state funds.

Gov. Larry Hogan's decision not to include money in the next budget toward a new jail drew various reactions from government officials, lawyers and civil rights leaders.

Hogan shuttered the dilapidated Baltimore City Detention Center in 2015, and pretrial detainees have since been spread among different state correctional buildings.

Now, what was first viewed as a temporary arrangement has become longer term and perhaps permanent. Defense attorneys say current accommodations could be viewed as an infringement of inmates' constitutional rights to an adequate defense.

"It's really a mess," Baltimore defense attorney Warren A. Brown said. "You don't know where the client is. Some jails, you get over there and they say you need to have 24 hours' approval. They even have some of [the inmates] up in Western Maryland. It makes it really difficult to effectively represent someone if you can't get to them."

State officials say they have worked to create more private space for lawyers, while the NAACP says freeing more detainees — not building a new jail — would provide Baltimore with all the jail space it needs to address concerns of overcrowding or inadequate space for client-attorney conferences.

"We don't need another jail," said Tessa Hill-Aston, president of the Baltimore City branch of the NAACP. "I would like to see the money go into other things to help the community solve problems that might cause people to go into jail in the first place."

The state-run Baltimore City Detention Center, which Hogan shut down in July 2015, dated to the 1850s and included 12 buildings that had major structural issues and plumbing problems. The conditions were unsafe for inmates and correctional officers, according to Hogan's office and many others.

Before Hogan's election, the jail had also been the target of federal investigations over the years that resulted in dozens of indictments of correctional officers and detainees, most recently in 2013, when state and federal authorities said the facility was essentially being run by the Black Guerrilla Family gang.

The jail's 1,100 inmates or detainees and its nearly 800 employees were transferred within weeks to other state correctional buildings, mostly in Baltimore.

Last year, the Republican governor proposed to delay five college projects to build a $480 million jail in the city. That drew criticism from Democratic lawmakers, who questioned Hogan's budgetary choices, and he withdrew the jail proposal to spend the money on the schools instead.

This year, Hogan did not include the jail money in his budget proposal to the General Assembly — though a spokesman said the governor was open to changing his mind if city lawmakers decided they wanted the jail.

As of last week, state correctional officials said 2,100 pretrial inmates were in their custody in Baltimore. Nearly 950 were being housed in the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center. The others were spread out among the Maryland Reception Diagnostic and Classification Center, the Baltimore City Correctional Center, the Maryland Transition Center and the Jail Industries Building. Inmates sentenced to less than a year, who had been at the jail, were moved to state prisons outside the city.

"We have strived to make the process as convenient as possible without disrupting our chief mission: security," said Gerard Shields, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which ran the city jail.

The state agency set up dedicated phone lines to help defense attorneys track down where their clients are, and it "carved out new space" in the various buildings to provide as much privacy as possible for lawyers to meet with detainees, Shields said.

Shields said Stephen T. Moyer, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, meets regularly with Maryland Public Defender Paul DeWolfe, who has not raised any concerns about the arrangements. DeWolfe did not return phone messages seeking comment.

But private attorneys, who travel among other jails in nearby counties, say they have the worst experiences trying to meet with Baltimore City detainees because of the arrangements.

Brown said he once had a tough time finding one young client who bounced between two state prison facilities before Brown learned that he was being transferred to a juvenile detention center. He said he either uses the state prison phone system to communicate with clients or meets with them in spaces where other detainees could overhear conversations.

"A lot of times there's no privacy. They're not in a cubicle, they're just lined up with each other. Anyone can hear a conversation they're having with you," Brown said. "The other jail was pathetic and something out of 'Les Miserables.' They need a new facility."

Catherine Flynn, also a veteran Baltimore defense attorney, said the different buildings detainees are housed in have different policies. Some want lawyers to make appointments using faxes, while she can't bring her cellphone or bag into the Jail Industries Building.

The Maryland Transition Center, Flynn said, has one office to meet with clients. If it's occupied, she has to wait or meet in a less private area because she is juggling a schedule that involves multiple clients and court appointments.

With court cases involving more and more evidence on flash drives and discs, she said, the current facilities also make it difficult to share that information with a client because of the lack of space and equipment.

"It would be helpful that the facility would have to accommodate 21st-century lawyering, which includes access to technology," Flynn said.

Hill-Aston said she doesn't think a new jail needs to be built, though she has heard complaints from recent inmates that the current accommodations aren't much better than the old jail.

She said jail conditions could be improved by renovating existing buildings, and by releasing more detainees who are being held for minor probation violations or nonviolent offenses, which would create more space.

The money Hogan would have spent for a new jail needs to be spent on education, job skills and drug treatment in Baltimore neighborhoods, she said.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

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