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After closing Baltimore's jail, Md.'s new corrections chief eyes other reforms

The cells inside the Baltimore City Detention Center are decrepit — with two detainees confined in a space barely big enough for one. The showers are filthy. The plumbing frequently leaks.

"I could barely stomach it," Stephen T. Moyer, the state corrections secretary, said while walking through the now-closed facility Thursday. "Prison isn't a good place for anybody, but people deserve better conditions than what that building offered. It was time for this place to go."

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The detainees once held in the facility — which predates the Civil War — have now been moved to newer, less cramped conditions elsewhere in the East Baltimore corrections complex. But Moyer said his reforms of the state's oft-maligned Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services aren't stopping there.

Next on his agenda, he said, is toughening the way employees are disciplined and cleaning up a lax culture of employee discipline in the corrections system.

Moyer said a staff review found that more than 250 employees have been arrested and charged with a crime since January 2013, but more than 200 of them are still employed. The charges include assault, driving under the influence and having sexual relations with an inmate.

Moyer ordered the review after two Baltimore correctional officers were charged in May with looting a downtown convenience store during unrest over the death of Freddie Gray. He asked his staff to review how many employees had been arrested or charged with crimes and was surprised to learn there were hundreds of such cases.

"I don't want them working here," he said Thursday.

Robert B. Thomas Jr., a spokesman for the agency, called the number "troubling" in an agency with 11,000 employees.

"The arrests occurred in every corner of the state, from Cumberland to the lower Shore," he wrote in an email. "The sheer numbers of arrests, and the fact that many of these employees are still working, indicates that the way things have been done is not working. The Secretary wants to know where the breakdowns have been. This illustrates the need to reform and streamline the [human resources] process."

Then, he plans to expedite plans to tear down the detention center and other uninhabitable parts of the Baltimore corrections complex.

"Gov. [Larry] Hogan wants to be the first person to hit that place with a bulldozer," Moyer said.

Hogan, a Republican, ordered the Men's Detention Center closed last month, and corrections officials moved the final detainees out this week. Moyer said Thursday that all pretrial detainees — about 850 men — have been moved to the Metropolitan Transition Center, Women's Detention Center and Jail Industries Building, all of which are within yards of the closed jail. State officials moved convicted offenders from the Metropolitan Transition Center to state prisons in Jessup to make room for the detainees, Moyer said.

"No detainees waiting trial were moved out of Baltimore," he said.

Del. John W.E. Cluster Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, said he believes the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services was in turmoil when Moyer took over.

"Although it's a huge, monumental challenge, I think Steve is up for it," he said of reform efforts.

On Thursday, Moyer and top corrections officials allowed members of the news media to inspect the closed jail, and observe the newer facilities to which detainees have been moved.

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"To see the difference from those two-people cells to the dorm area was night and day," said Cluster, who joined the walk-through. "The whole living environment is so much better where they're at than where they were before. It's a huge improvement."

He said he believed state officials previously "didn't care" enough to close the facility.

"They were housing people in an inhumane place, and they just wiped it under the table," Cluster said.

The jail housed defendants awaiting trial and convicts serving short sentences. The state took it over in 1991.

The facility has a history of corruption and violence. In 2013, federal authorities announced indictments against dozens of inmates and corrections officers in a contraband-smuggling scheme; the leader of the Black Guerrilla Family gang was recorded on a wiretapped phone call declaring "This is my jail."

Frank James MacArthur, a blogger, activist and Internet personality known as the Baltimore Spectator, spent a week in the Men's Detention Center in 2013 while facing charges that he possessed a short-barreled shotgun after a standoff with police that he broadcast live.

MacArthur said Thursday he pleaded guilty in part to get out of the terrible conditions at the jail. He was sentenced to time served.

"When you have to use the bathroom, you're using it next to someone's head," MacArthur recalled. "No one sleeps with his head toward the bars, because you can be assaulted."

He said other parts of the complex, where MacArthur also was held, are a "night and day difference."

The Men's Detention Center "was filled with rodents and roaches," he said. "We were in perpetual lockdown. You were stuck in that cell for 23 hours out of every day. People take plea deals to get out of the hellhole."

MacArthur said he supports Hogan's decision to close the jail, but doesn't think it should be torn down.

"I don't agree with razing it," he said. "We can't just pretend it didn't happen. People need to be held accountable for continually operating this place."

Hogan has said closing the jail is expected to save taxpayers $10 million to $15 million annually. Baltimore's jail population has dipped in recent years, opening room elsewhere for the inmates from the detention center.

Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, said the conditions at the Baltimore City Detention Center underscore the need to "revamp" the way those awaiting trial are treated in Maryland.

"We need to look at our whole pretrial system, because often we hold people for lengthy periods of time only for them to be found not guilty," she said. "It's horrible what we've done to people in this state."

Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, is expected to hold hearings on Hogan's moves at the detention center in late September or early October.

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