What you need to know about the Baltimore jail's checkered history

When the Baltimore City Jail opened in 1859, one spectator called it "the handsomest jail I ever saw."

But praise for the Gothic Revival-style facility at 410 E. Eager St. did not last. By 1885, The Baltimore Sun was reporting complaints about "lack of accommodations," and politicians, advocates for inmates and others have made many pushes since then for a modern facility better equipped to house large populations.


On Thursday. Gov. Larry Hogan announced that he was shutting down the 27-acre Baltimore City Detention Center campus.

A disgrace and menace

In 1938, some in the city were calling for the building to be demolished and replaced with a new facility.

"It not only is a disgrace, but it is a sanitary menace, and a breeder of degeneracy, and if any considerable sum of money is spent in the future to renovate it, will be equivalent to pouring money down a rat-hole," said the president of the city's Criminal Justice Commission, C. Delano Ames. He called it a "disgrace to a metropolitan city."

In 1940, a grand jury subcommittee recommended that a new jail be built, but acknowledged that "the committee feels it is useless for them to lay any great stress upon this point as the recommendation has been made by every grand jury for the last 10 or 15 years without results."

In 1952, city voters approved a $6 million loan to build a new jail. Residents in East Baltimore protested plans to relocate the jail near City Hospital, now Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center — they expressed concern that their neighborhood would become "a loitering place for released inmates," according to an account of a 1953 Board of Estimates meeting.

In 1962, the city settled on renovating the building. The cost of the project was estimated at $2 million. The work would include the complete "destruction of the interior of the building and the refacing of the exterior."

The first of three planned phases ended up costing $3.8 million. It had a gym, offices, and other improvements to accommodate an inmate population of 1,500. The new additions included space for 200 women.

At a dedication ceremony in 1967, Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin said "building a new structure is not enough. We need substantiative rehabilitation programs for these men. ... They are an essential part of any crime-fighting program."

Five years later, the federal Bureau of Prisons found problems throughout the jail, including a "desperate lack of training among guards, lax security measures, poor sanitation and inadequate inmate rehabilitation programs."

The bureau said morale among the 273 guards was poor. Months later, two black guards were promoted to captain — the first such promotions in the jail's history. By that year, 60 percent of the facility's guards were black.

In 1977, four women were among the first female guards to work in the men's wing of the jail.

In 1979, after a federal judge ruled that only one inmate could be housed in each cell, city officials announced a five-year project to renovate and expand the jail.

The city agreed in federal court in 1987 to provide 500 new beds for inmates at jails around the city to ease overcrowding. The plan was a response to a 10-year-old lawsuit brought by inmates complaining of overcrowded conditions. The city also agreed to keep the jail population below 2,622.


But the city struggled to make space and reduce the number of inmates. At one point, city officials proposed spending $15,000 to post bail for some inmates charged with minor offenses.

Recommendations also were made to hire new prosecutors to move cases more quickly and thereby reduce the jail population, but city officials said they could not afford it.

About 180 inmates were to be placed on home-monitoring programs, but that plan fizzled because more than half of the inmates did not have home telephones.

'Beds for 4,000?'

By 1989, the jail's population was just under 3,000, and then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke declared an emergency at the facility. He told The Sun that he did not want to build a bigger jail.

"Is this community going to build beds for 4,000 inmates?" he asked. "I don't think it wants to, particularly because building the 1,100 or so it's built over the last 10 years has not had an impact on public safety."

The state took over the Baltimore City Jail in 1991 and renamed it the Baltimore City Detention Center.

In 2002, the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice found that conditions at the detention center violated the constitutional rights of inmates.

The Justice Department said conditions at the jail had contributed to the deaths of several detainees, some of whom received little or no medical attention for chronic health problems.

Gangs and guards

In 2013, the jail drew international attention after 44 people, including 13 female corrections officers, were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of racketeering and drug violations.

One indictment described the leadership of Tavon White, who was accused of taking control of a prison gang smuggling drugs and cellphones into the jail and impregnating four guards.

White pleaded guilty to federal racketeering conspiracy charges in the case


In 2013, then-Gov. Martin O'Malley approved a $533 million plan to demolish the jail and rebuild it.

Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.