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Judge delays order in women's jail dispute

A federal judge gave state officials and civil rights attorneys more time to agree on a remedy for the continued problem of excessive heat at the Baltimore women's detention center, saying yesterday that the two sides appeared close to a solution.

Attorneys representing women detainees said in court papers last month that jail officials were failing to comply with a year-old court order requiring that the aging facility be cooled in hot weather and that women determined to be at-risk for heat-related illnesses be housed in air-conditioned units.

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U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz declined to issue a new enforcement order yesterday, noting that jail authorities had taken steps in recent weeks to correct problems by installing additional air-conditioning units and more closely monitoring temperatures inside the facility.

The judge gave the parties two weeks to reach a final solution and warned that the summer's mild weather shouldn't be reason for delay.

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"This is a problem that needs to be solved," Motz said.

Temperatures in some of the jail dormitories had approached 100 degrees last month, according to court papers filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. In some instances, women who suffer from asthma or heart conditions were housed in areas with faulty air conditioning that were hotter than other units with no air conditioning.

Without ruling on the group's claims, Motz generally endorsed one solution offered by the women's lawyers - that medically at-risk detainees be moved to a dormitory one floor below the jail's air-conditioned gymnasium, which is typically cooler than other housing units.

William J. Smith, commissioner for pretrial detention services, said after the hearing that he would consider that change.

"We're going to take a look at it," Smith said. "Our concern is the same as their concern - anything we can do to make life better for the residents, I'm all for it."

Elizabeth Alexander, with the ACLU's National Prison Project, said she was "hopeful that a comprehensive solution will be found."

"However, we are concerned that if there is another heat wave in Baltimore, these women will be at great risk," she said.

Overheated conditions at the jail became an issue during last summer's long heat wave, when city public defenders began asking judges at bail review hearings to release female defendants on the grounds that the poorly ventilated jail violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

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Unlike the neighboring Central Booking and Intake Center, where men are held before trial, the women's jail has no central air conditioning.


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