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More Baltimore County jail inmates file federal lawsuits alleging unsanitary conditions, lack of coronavirus protections

Two more Baltimore County jail inmates have filed federal lawsuits over a sewage leak inside their cell blocks, complaining that detention center staff were slow in responding and did nothing to help as they and other inmates lived in dangerous, foul and unsanitary conditions for days.

The allegations stem from at least five federal complaints filed against the Baltimore County Detention Center in recent weeks. Along with detailing the sewage spill, inmates are seeking damages and asking the court to address other issues, including changes to the way meals are served and what they call repeated and flagrant violations of rules designed to combat COVID-19 inside Maryland’s jails and prisons.

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Inmates Keith Wiggins and Reginald Dorsey said in separate complaints filed last week that they were forced to sit in filthy jails with no running water or working toilets for at least four days, beginning on April 14. The men said that problems caused by a sewage leak were made much worse after staff members decided to “take actions.” They said those actions, including shutting off water in each cell and keeping inmates locked inside with no ability to leave, created dangerous conditions that violated their civil rights.

Waste seeped into inmates’ cells for several days, according to their complaints and others filed in U.S. District Court.

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The allegations echo those cited in a lawsuit last month by Robert Burkey. Burkey alleged that sewage spilled from both tiers in the facility and leaked into the control room.

The complaints also focus on what the inmates say are repeated violations of mask mandates and statewide rules governing social distancing. They alleged inmates have not been given proper access to protective equipment or testing for the coronavirus.

Baltimore County officials say they are committed to protecting inmates in their care. Gail Watts, Director of the Baltimore County Department of Corrections, said this week that the department is taking measures to protect inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic despite complaints.

“The Baltimore County Department of Corrections takes the responsibility of ensuring health and safety of incarcerated individuals seriously and has implemented a number of COVID-19 safeguards to protect both inmates and correctional staff,” Watts said in a statement to the Baltimore Sun. “The county carefully reviews all concerns raised by incarcerated individuals.”

In his complaint, Wiggins also took issue with changes to the way meals are served since coronavirus restrictions began in the spring. He said that inmates have been getting three bagged lunches a day instead of two hot meals. Several bags of food were given to inmates with mice and rat holes in them, Wiggins further alleged, and some inmates complained of being served moldy food.

Wiggins,19, is in jail awaiting trial on assault, firearm, armed robbery and carjacking charges, according to Maryland court records.

Baltimore County officials said that some changes to the jail menu were made in April due to COVID-19, including four days of inmates being served three cold bagged meals. But by April 18 inmates were getting one hot meal and two cold ones a day, and since July 30 inmates receive two hold meals daily, along with one cold offering.

The spokesman also said inmates are immediately quarantined and tested if they express concern about having COVID-19 or show symptoms.

One inmate, Renardo Whitehead, alleged in his federal lawsuit that he was denied COVID-19 testing after he “asked several times.” Whitehead added that social distancing orders have been “ignored” by staff, and that groups as large as 18 people congregating are common at any point in the day.

Whitehead, 20, said he has asked corrections staff for masks and protective equipment but has been turned down, according to court documents. He is in jail awaiting trial on murder and assault charges, according to Maryland court records.

The complaints sound familiar to inmate advocates and public defenders, who have harshly criticized conditions inside Maryland’s prisons and jails. They have repeatedly called for the release of inmates to protect them from coronavirus, especially those suffering from underlying illness or disease.

“Allegations of unsanitary conditions and uneatable food are extremely disturbing and potentially a constitutional violation,” said Amy Fettig, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C. based non-profit that focuses on equal justice issues. “Lack of COVID-19 testing is potentially dangerous for everyone in the jail. Including people who live and work there.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Baltimore County Detention Center is serving inmates three cold “bagged” meals per day. In fact, while the center made adjustments due to constraints caused by COVID-19, it is serving two hot meals and one cold meal to inmates each day. The Sun regrets the error.

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