Central Booking making strides

The Baltimore Sun

On Lt. Debra Sisco-Watts' computer inside Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center, the names of a dozen people who have been held for more than 15 hours stood out in red text at the top of the screen. The names of dozens more were below in black.

This slight, but important, difference in color and location is her signal to pay extra attention so that a complicated booking process doesn't bog down. The names in red were the problem.

"If I don't have a document, I'll call a liaison," said Sisco-Watts, who oversees an early warning system on the booking floor and was discussing some of the things that can cause delays. "I'll get it to the war room [where prosecutors review cases], so we'll make sure someone doesn't go over his 24 hours."

That initial 24-hour mark for each of the hundreds of detainees entering the booking center each week has never been more critical to correctional officers, who are trying to overcome a process once so dysfunctional that public defenders sued the facility two years ago because detainees were languishing in cells for days. During several weeks in 2005, a judge ordered dozens of people released when they hadn't been given a bail review hearing within the required 24 hours.

But on a rare tour with a reporter, Warden Mitchell J. Franks pointed out what he described as small - but critical - improvements in the complicated booking process that have helped officials avoid such problems for nearly a year. The booking floor has had the computer to color-code problem cases for years, but it wasn't until the lawsuit that a staff member was assigned solely to monitor the seemingly endless flow of defendants.

New equipment - such as wireless hand-held scanners and digital fingerprint machines - have also helped speed up the process.

"She's like an air traffic controller," Franks said of Sisco-Watts. Once a name turns red, it becomes Sisco-Watts' job to ask questions, help track down documents and make sure the defendant meets with a court official as soon as possible.

When Central Booking opened in 1995, correctional officials praised its cutting-edge technology designed to process and track defendants. But from the beginning, corrections officials had trouble managing the crush of arrestees city police were bringing through their doors each day.

The hulking behemoth of concrete and steel - whose small windows overlook the Jones Falls Expressway - has a booking and processing area that runs the length of a city block. Three towers hold detainees in dormitories and single cells. During a visit to floors on all three towers, detainees could be seen wearing yellow, jail-issued jumpsuits, congregating around tables and playing cards or watching television.

Some wore slippers or jail-issued tennis shoes because their Timberland boots were confiscated - for fear that detainees could extract the metal supports in the soles and use them to fashion weapons.

To get to the towers, detainees are escorted by officers inside large elevators with buttons that are not activated, for security reasons. Instead, officers flash fingers at a surveillance camera inside the elevator to indicate the floor they wish to go to - and another officer in a control room activates the elevator.

"The slowness of moving through a prison is one of the things you get used to," Franks said.

Franks is a veteran corrections administrator who took over Central Booking in mid-2005, as criticism mounted over the delays and the stomping death of an inmate by a correctional officer at about the same time.

Back then, it was routine for the center to hold 1,200 people at a time, with 15 to 20 people crammed into holding cells designed for only a handful. Now, the population mark hovers around 900 each month - the capacity for which the five-story building was designed. People are booked and processed in the building, and if they are detained until trial, they are transferred to the adjacent city Detention Center.

"Communication has improved," said Franks, who guided the tour with a state public information officer but did not allow photos to be taken for security reasons. "Everybody is working hard to keep the number down."

In the past, people would be stuck in holding cells for hours, even though a prosecutor or a court commissioner had determined they could go free. But they remained detained while correctional officers waited for their property to arrive for them. Now, people are freed first and can wait in a lobby until their property arrives, Franks said.

Other changes include adding 109 surveillance cameras inside the booking and housing floors, bringing the total to more than 250. More cameras will be added inside the property room, where there have been at least two recent cases of theft. Two former detainees told The Sun their credit cards were stolen and used to charge hundreds of dollars in purchases at stores in Pikesville.

Benjamin F. Brown, assistant commissioner for the Maryland Division of Pretrial Detention and Services, which runs Central Booking and the city Detention Center, declined to disclose details of the thefts. He said jail officials were cooperating with other law enforcement agencies in an investigation.

"The cameras are definitely going to help us deal with" better security in the property room, Brown said.

During the tour Wednesday, most parts of the booking area were not busy. Three men waited on a stainless steel bench inside a room where correctional officers would soon take their mug shots and use a digital scanner to record prints for all 10 fingers and a palm.

Dozens of holding cells were vacant, while "working men" - trusted detainees who are allowed to work inside the facility - were busy mopping and cleaning the floors around stainless steel toilets. Two years ago, those same cells were packed so deep with men that they struggled for fresh air, The Sun reported at the time. Some would put their faces at the base of the thick, green steel door to breathe in air from the outside hallway.

In May 2005, a month after the public defenders filed their lawsuit, Central Booking faced more problems when a detainee - Raymond Smoot - was stomped to death in a melee. One correctional officer was convicted of murder.

The center's managers responded by tightening guidelines for reporting situations where officers have to use force against detainees.

On the busiest days now, if the booking area is dealing with 300 or more detainees, Sisco-Watts automatically gets help from another person - together, they manage the flow.

It is a complicated logistical process that often involves moving a detainee through about four different cells, plus areas where they are checked by medical staff, fingerprinted and photographed, and seen by a court commissioner who determines bail status.

Acknowledging the progress made at the facility, the public defenders dropped their lawsuit in September.

Correctional officers are also better attuned now to arrest patterns in the city, officials said, and the police will give them notice when a large number of detainees are expected. The Police Department, which once was at odds with the corrections officials over delays that kept officers off the streets, has noted the improvements, according to Matt Jablow, a Baltimore police spokesman.

"It's definitely improved," said Jablow. "The wait times are less."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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