State planning to replace women's jail in Baltimore

The state plans to spend more than $110 million over the next five years to replace Baltimore's dilapidated women's detention center and to build a new jail for juvenile offenders now housed with adults, the governor's office said yesterday.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s capital budget outlines plans for a $66.5 million, 800-bed women's jail to take the place of a facility that has been criticized for rampant problems, including poor ventilation and a faulty sewage system.


The 200-bed jail for offenders under 18, expected to cost $51 million, will be for youths charged as adults and awaiting trial. They are currently kept with adult inmates, a practice that has been criticized.

Money for land acquisition and demolition is included in the budget year that begins July 1. Both buildings would be constructed along Madison Street near the state's Supermax prison. Some of the land is owned by the state and the rest would need to be purchased from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.


"Certainly we hope this comes through because Secretary [Mary Ann] Saar would love nothing better than to have several new facilities to improve the conditions for everyone concerned. Several of our facilities are very old and in need of drastic updating," said Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Like all spending proposed by the governor, the plans are subject to General Assembly approval.

In a tight budget year - the governor's $847 million capital proposal for fiscal 2005 is one of the smallest by an executive in years - advocates praised the new commitment to changes in the way inmates are treated.

Elizabeth Alexander, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national prison project, said Baltimore needs a new women's jail as soon as possible.

"The women's detention center is falling down," Alexander said. "The building was built wrong. The basic systems of this jail just don't work."

Alexander is part of a watchdog group that has been pushing for safer conditions in the city's jail for women, including improved medical care and more sanitary conditions.

"There have been a number of events in the last eight months in which raw sewage has been going into various dorms," Alexander said. And, she said, "the ventilation system essentially doesn't work."

In the summer of 2002, the public defender's office argued to a District Court judge that assigning women awaiting trial to the jail was "inhumane" because of the heat and violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Several employees were granted transfers because of the high temperatures, and several inmates were treated for heat exhaustion and respiratory problems.

Since ribbon-cutting remains several years off, Ehrlich's capital budget also includes $3.3 million to install a central air-conditioning system at the women's jail and to upgrade its ventilation system. The department is under a federal consent decree to improve air quality at the state-run facility.


In December, the ACLU and the nonprofit Public Justice Center filed papers in federal court contending that conditions in all of Baltimore's jails pose a danger to inmates' health.

Attorneys for the groups say that detainees routinely wash their clothes in toilets, eat food prepared in kitchens where mice and cockroaches run free, and go days without receiving medicine they need.

Additionally, lawyers allege that state officials violated the terms of a 1993 legal order that required them to clean up the jails and revamp the way medical services are provided.

State officials have until next month to respond.

In 1999, the New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a report saying that juveniles awaiting trial in Maryland should not be in the detention center with adults, where it said they endure rampant violence and appalling conditions.