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Improved conditions cited at Baltimore's Detention Center State control of facility lauded by jail consultants

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Baltimore City Detention Center may still be an antiquated, overcrowded fortress of gloom, but conditions there have "significantly improved" since the state of Maryland assumed control of the institution last summer, according to a report by two prison consultants.

Norman A. Carlson and Gerald M. Farkas, who were appointed by the federal court to monitor conditions at the turn-of-the-century jail, attributed the improvements to "a new management staff as well as the state's willingness to provide resources to correct a number of long-standing deficiencies."

The state took over the East Eager Street facility July 1 as part of a deal to relieve the city of Baltimore of a financially draining, problem-plagued institution.

In a report made public last week, the court masters cited improvements in the physical plant, overall maintenance, staff morale and the recordkeeping system.

"While it remains an old, overcrowded and poorly designed institution, the new administration is doing a commendable job in improving both security in the institution as well as the conditions of confinement for inmates," according to the April 6 report to District Judge Frank A. Kaufman.

But not everyone familiar with the detention center sees it that way.

Frank Dunbaugh, the lawyer representing inmates in their long-standing court fight to reduce overcrowding and improve conditions at the jail, viewed the report merely as a summary of a one-day visit to the complex that encompasses nearly a city block.

Mr. Dunbaugh said the masters discuss what they saw during their tour, but "did not make any findings of fact."

"There has been no effort by anybody to go through the [court-ordered] decree to make a compliance check to see if they are doing what they are supposed to be doing," Mr. Dunbaugh said.

As expected, state officials were elated by the masters' assessment of their work.

"The governor and the secretary [of public safety] directed a substantial amount of resources to enable this new agency to make the essential improvements that would enhance public safety, improve the work environment for the employees, improve the surroundings for the inmates and at the same time relieve the city of Baltimore of a financial albatross," said LaMont Flanagan, commissioner of pretrial and detention services. "This report only gives the state the added incentive to continue making further essential capital improvements in this antiquated physical plant and maintain compliance with the federal court."

But advocates for the 579 correctional officers who lost their collective bargaining rights as part of the state takeover take issue with the report's finding of improved conditions for employees.

"The main issue to our members is the staffing problem, and the staffing problem has gotten considerably worse since the state has taken over," said Rudy Porter, a Maryland Correctional Union spokesman. "We've met with the commissioner, and, frankly, I think he has a lot of great ideas.

"If he could implement all of his ideas, the facility would be greatly improved. . . . The staffing problem is not his fault in total. He is dealing with the staff the legislature has allowed him to have."

Mr. Flanagan, the jail commissioner, disputed the union's claims, saying the state is spending comparatively less on overtime than the city did.

During the present fiscal year, which ends June 30, Mr. Flanagan said he expects to spend about $3.1 million in overtime to keep security posts staffed. He also noted that a daily average of 32 correctional officers call in sick, which exacerbates the overtime situation.

In its last year of running the facility, the city spent $1.4 million in overtime, but the jail had a series of escapes, mistaken releases and unstaffed security posts, Mr. Flanagan said. During fiscal years 1990 and 1989, the city spent $2.8 million and $3.8 million, respectively, on overtime, he said.

When state officials assumed control of the largest local detention facility in the state last July, they inherited a host of problems, including a classification system that was in a shambles and responsibility for 93 inmates remaining at the jail beyond the legal limit.

They came under the scrutiny of a dogged judge who oversees compliance with a long-standing court order to reduce overcrowding and improve conditions at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Furthermore, they were subject to the consulting fees of Mr. Carlson and Mr. Farkas, the two masters

monitoring conditions at the facility, until the judge decides that enough improvements have been made. (So far, the state has paid about $20,000 in fees to the masters.)

The report, based on a March 19 inspection and conversations with management, staff and inmates, noted that:

* Maintenance problems with plumbing and other utilities have "dramatically improved." In its first year of operation, the state budgeted about $800,000 for maintenance -- nearly triple the $340,000 the city spent in its last year running the jail, said Mr. Flanagan.

The commissioner said repairs have been made to security gates, cell locks, ventilation and electrical systems as well as fire and safety hazards.

* Staff morale "appeared to be considerably higher than at any other times during our previous visits."

* The state put in place a "significantly improved" inmate classification system that assigns inmates to housing based on severity of offense, history of violence and escape, and pending charges.

Jail inmates interviewed by the masters did complain about the food service at the detention center, however. In February, when a new food service provider came on board, 285 grievances were filed by inmates. While noting that the food was not "gourmet," the masters found the food to be "satisfactory."

Despite the positive assessment, the masters recognized the long-standing problem at the jail -- too many inmates -- to be a persistent and troubling one. It is the same problem that put the jail back in the headlines in 1988 and 1989 and put the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke at odds with the federal court.

Mr. Flanagan said his administration has experienced "a substantial population increase." Since February, the detention center has had to place inmates in police lockups to keep the jail population under the court-ordered cap of 2,813

A new 800-bed expansion is planned for the detention center.

The state also has had its share of disturbances at the jail. As recently as May 11, a correctional officer was beaten by three inmates. That incident occurred three days after 10 inmates set fire to mattresses in the facility.

"Without question, the next two years will be an extremely critical period of time in respect to housing pretrial detainees in Baltimore. All existing institutions -- including the Detention Center -- are operating well above their intended capacity," the masters said.

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