Justice officials revisit city jail

The U.S. Justice Department has returned to the Baltimore city jail and booking center to determine whether progress has been made since its investigators issued a scathing report three years ago decrying problems with medical care, sanitation and other troubling conditions for inmates.

"They are looking to get an accurate understanding and update on the current conditions at the institution," said Karen V. Poe, a spokeswoman with the state public safety department. "It's not an adversarial situation."

Justice Department consultants started visiting the detention center and the Central Booking and Intake Center last month and are expected to remain for several weeks.

A Justice Department spokesman would not comment, saying the visits involve "an ongoing matter."

State officials characterized the visits as a follow-up to ones that the Justice Department conducted in late 2000 and early 2001. Investigators' findings, released in August 2002 in a report to then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, detailed problems at the state-run jail and booking center.

The Justice Department's report cited flaws in medical and mental health care, sanitation, protection of juveniles and opportunities for exercise for inmates.

It dealt mostly with conditions at the detention center, which holds men and women awaiting trial or serving short sentences, and only briefly mentioned some problems at the booking center, which processes people who have just been arrested.

The report listed 107 recommendations for improvements, and threatened a lawsuit to address the deficiencies. However, the report also said officials prefer to resolve the matter "cooperatively." The Justice Department has not sued.

Mark Vernarelli, a public safety spokesman, said the department has spent $2 million to improve the heating and ventilation system at the jail, replaced the roof on the building that houses female detainees, improved lighting in the yard, remodeled the kitchen and replaced equipment, improved education and replaced the medical provider.

It also named a new warden and assistant warden at Central Booking.

"We're spending a lot of money and making dramatic improvements, and we'll continue to do that," Vernarelli said.

The detention center's monthly population has fluctuated from 2,300 inmates to more than 3,000. The booking center processes roughly 100,000 arrestees a year.

Since the Justice Department report, complaints of severe crowding at Central Booking have surfaced.

This year, the public defender's office sued and succeeded in obtaining a temporary restraining order from a city Circuit Court judge who ordered jail officials to release people who were arrested and held for more than 24 hours without an initial court hearing.

After that lawsuit, which is still in litigation, public safety officials have rushed to implement changes that have resulted, they say, in a reduction in delays and crowding for inmates.

The state is also in the midst of defending against another long-standing lawsuit over conditions at the city jail, which traces its roots to litigation begun in federal court in the early 1970s.

That lawsuit - begun when the city still had control of the jail - was recently revived by the American Civil Liberties Union and other inmate advocacy groups.

The groups have argued in court filings in federal court that inmates continue to suffer from poor health care and deplorable living conditions at a facility whose operation was taken over by the state in the early 1990s.

Elizabeth Alexander, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, said she hasn't seen much improvement in the jail's buildings, and that any gains in health care remain difficult to assess since the state contracted with a different private company in July to provide health care to inmates.

"I would be hopeful [about the Justice Department's involvement] only if there's been a change of heart from the government of Maryland," Alexander said.

"Obviously, if now Maryland is willing to enter into an appropriate settlement with the Department of Justice, we'd be thrilled to see the interests of our clients addressed. But we have no real reason to think that's going on."


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