The U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division has not visited the Baltimore City Detention Center in nearly two years, despite an agreement with the state to oversee reforms at the facility.
The jail's handling of juveniles has been a continuing concern for the Justice Department, and attorneys and youth advocates say changes made last year have exacerbated conditions. The Baltimore Sun has reported that youths describe regular attacks among detainees and lax supervision by correctional officers.
Maryland's agreement with the civil rights division, which is led by Thomas E. Perez, former state labor secretary, was extended in April and allows federal monitors to perform site checks and conduct confidential interviews with detainees and staff. But Justice Department officials confirmed that the last site visit was Nov. 14, 2010.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he would send Perez a letter of inquiry Monday morning to try to get monitors to visit "immediately."
"Here is a test of what Justice said they would do, and if they're not doing it, it's a major problem," said Cummings, a Baltimore native. "The young people who wind up in the detention center are already troubled and this system is supposed to be rehabilitating. When you put them in a position to be harmed, it just makes an already bad situation worse."
While federal officials acknowledge they're aware of recent allegations, they declined to comment further on the department's role.
"That is shocking, and it requires more than a no-response answer," said state Sen.Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat. "As dangerous as the situation has been portrayed, one would think they'd be more on top of their game."
Gary Maynard, the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said in a statement that he took "strong exception" to claims made by detainees and their attorneys, and said that "to date, no evidence has been brought to light that would substantiate them."
"Our Department continues to meet its responsibility to keep this population safe. And we always meet this population's basic educational, medical and mental health needs," Maynard said.
The jail has undergone a major shift in the past year in the way it oversees youths charged as adults. The state moved the juveniles to a separate annex, where they live in dorm-style cages that hold up to 32 youths. Previously, the young detainees were held two to a cell. The state said the move was made to foster socialization and provide a less restrictive environment.
Juvenile detainees and their attorneys have testified in a slew of recent court hearings — and in interviews with The Sun — that the dorm-style arrangement has led to an increase in assaults. They also say that corrections staff have not been present or have not intervened, and that they have treated their own medical issues.
Those who report assaults are moved to a segregation tier and are prevented from attending the facility's on-site school, detainees claim. The facility, which is not air conditioned, also experienced power outages this summer that lasted days at a time.
In Maryland, there are at least 28 crimes for which suspects under 18 must be charged as adults. Almost 70 percent of those charged are not convicted in adult court, with their cases dropped by prosecutors or waived to the juvenile system, which emphasizes rehabilitation.
But while awaiting trial, the youths are held for months and sometimes years at the city's adult jail, where officials acknowledge they struggle to provide adequate services to juveniles. Advocates want the youngsters to be held at the Juvenile Justice Center, which is run by the Department of Juvenile Services, and say the state's plan for a new, $70 million jail for youths charged as adults is the wrong approach.
The agreement with the Department of Justice has been in place since 2007, and grew out of a report years earlier that criticized conditions and procedures at the facility for detainees, adult and juvenile. It found that the jail was "deliberately indifferent to inmates' serious medical and mental health needs" and that "juveniles detained at the facility are not kept safe from potential harm by adult inmates."
As part of the agreement, officials visited the facility about twice a year, according to officials familiar with the agreement.
The agreement was due to expire in 2011, but in late 2010, the Justice Department determined that the state had not yet achieved "substantial compliance" with several provisions of the agreement. A new agreement was ratified in April 2012, according to documents provided by the state.
Many portions of the 2007 agreement were deleted, with federal officials acknowledging that the state had made progress. But most of the concerns regarding juveniles — having to do with staffing, services and discipline — remained in place.
The agreement calls for the state to provide reports to the federal government every six months "until substantial compliance is reached," and said the Justice Department "may conduct periodic on-site compliance monitoring tours," including confidential interviews with inmates and staff.
When asked to describe the Justice Department's role at the facility, spokesman Mitchell Rivard said in a statement last week that officials were "aware of the recent allegations ... and we continue to monitor their compliance under the extended memorandum of understanding." But the department declined to elaborate or answer questions about why there had been no site visits.
"Based on its findings since 2007, the DOJ reduced the number of visits as the Baltimore City Detention Center continued to make progress," said state public safety spokesman Rick Binetti. "It's up to the DOJ when they request to visit. Since the agreement was just extended, that simply means they have not toured BCDC since the extension was put in place."
State Del. Jill P. Carter said that the oversight was "desperately needed" and that she would seek insight into why there had been no federal visits.
"The situation is too grave for there not to be adequate oversight," the Northwest Baltimore Democrat said.
Elizabeth Alexander, an attorney involved with a separate settlement regarding conditions at the jail, said she also was surprised at the lack of visits.
"My own impression is that sanitation at the facility and upkeep, not to mention the level of violence at the facility, has [worsened] over the last two years," Alexander said. "I prefer that they would be at the facility looking at it, because there's plenty of work to go around."
Camilla Roberson, an attorney who works with the Just Kids Partnership, a youth advocacy group, said she was unaware that the memorandum of understanding had been extended and was not sure why the Justice Department hasn't made any visits.
"Somebody needs to be there," she said. "Somebody needs to find out what's going on and keep an eye on it. Whether it's the Justice Department or whoever else is monitoring, I get worried that there isn't enough information coming out of the jail."
While denying the detainees' claims of abuse, Maynard acknowledged in his statement that the building where youths are held is not adequate and reaffirmed the agency's desire to build a new jail for youths charged as adults. The new building would hold all services — educational, health, drug treatment, recreational and family visitation — under one roof, Maynard said.
"I urge the General Assembly to fund construction of this new facility designed specifically to meet the needs of youth charged as adults," Maynard said.
But youth advocates, who decry the conditions at the current facility, are opposed to building a new jail. They believe that the state's juvenile justice center can accommodate those youths, and that the millions of dollars it would cost to build a new jail should go instead to programs to keep juveniles out the criminal justice system. They seek long-term juvenile justice reform and say the large financial commitment to building a new facility would reinforce current policies.
Binetti, the public safety spokesman, said a hearing of the House of Delegates' appropriations committee was scheduled for Aug. 29.
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Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.