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Advocates cheer jail closure, but say concerns remain

Advocates say a lawsuit against the city jail complex will continue.

Jail reform advocates on Friday cheered Gov. Larry Hogan's decision to close the long-troubled Baltimore City Detention Center but said concerns about the city's correctional complex remain.

Officials from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public Justice Center, who have sued the state over conditions at the facilities, said their lawsuit will continue until detainees receive better health care and more humane treatment.

"The decision to close the Men's Detention Center is a very positive step and decades overdue," said Debra Gardner, legal director for the Public Justice Center. "But it doesn't solve all the problems. The Women's Detention Center is fraught with safety problems as well, and our concerns about health care access are for the whole complex."

Hogan said Thursday that he will immediately shut down the decrepit men's jail, moving inmates and ending a long-standing "black eye" for the state.

"For years, there have been complaints about its structural deficiencies," the governor said. "The state of disrepair makes the detention center dangerous not only for workers but for the inmates housed here as well."

But he provided few details about where inmates would go, saying only that they would be transferred to nearby facilities over the next few weeks.

The state-run city jail, which houses pretrial detainees and inmates sentenced to fewer than 18 months in jail, is part of a larger complex of corrections facilities and state prisons just east of downtown Baltimore. The complex includes the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center and the Chesapeake Detention Facility, formerly known as Supermax. It also includes the women's jail, which will remain open.

Matt Clark, a spokesman for Hogan, said Friday that detainees awaiting trail would not be housed with convicts serving long sentences, and men and women inmates would not be commingled in the transition.

"Those are the policies of the department, and those policies are not changing," he said.

Still, advocates worried about where displaced inmates would be housed.

Tara Huffman, the director of criminal and juvenile justice at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, said her organization "endorses the closing of the jail because we think it just can't be fixed."

"Our concerns center around, 'So now what?'" she said. "Are they going to be any better at another facility? Are they going to continue to have access to families and justice? We don't know all the details."

Cheryl E. Goldschmitt, a paralegal from Burtonsville, praised the governor. She said her husband was locked up at the Baltimore City Detention Center in 2010 and the conditions were deplorable.

"He was forced to sleep on concrete," she said. "He was not given his prescription medicine. He got sick and was told that if he threw up, he would have to clean it up himself. When I heard Governor Hogan was closing the jail, I thought, 'Thank God.'"

Despite decades of lawsuits and settlements aimed at forcing the Baltimore City Detention Center to provide proper health care to those recently arrested or serving short sentences, advocates for detainees returned to court in June because they say conditions remain inhumane.

The ACLU and the Public Justice Center said in a motion filed in federal court that a review of more than three dozen inmate cases found lack of timely medical assessments, interruptions of medications to control diseases such as HIV and diabetes, incomplete medical records, and shortages of supplies and equipment as fundamental as wheelchairs.

The assessment also found that some of the Baltimore buildings that make up Central Booking and the men's and women's jails had moldy showers, excessively hot and humid air, mattresses that could not be completely cleaned and, at times, lacked working plumbing. Many detainees were found to be washing their underwear in buckets.

Gardner said the lawsuit over jail conditions is scheduled to be back in court in December.

Hogan's move to shut down the jail has been generally praised by both Democrats and Republicans. But Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, said he has "a lot of problems with it."

"The state needs more prison space, not less," McDonough said. "I'm concerned closing down prison space will lead to the early release of hardened criminals."

Hogan said Thursday there are enough open spaces in the state's corrections facilities to accommodate all detainees and inmates now housed at the city jail. He said no corrections officers would lose their jobs.

The corrections officers' union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Friday that the shutdown was "long overdue" but faulted Hogan for not including the union in the process. The governor "should not only have shared this information with the affected stakeholders, but he should have asked for their learned input," the union said in a statement.

Executive director Glenn Middleton said staffing remains a top concern. "We're always concerned about safety and security, and that means having enough people to staff the place," he said.

Union president Sgt. Lisa Speight, a 21-year veteran who works at the jail, said she couldn't comment on whether the facilities can effectively absorb the jail's inmate population or what potential challenges may loom. But she said those who work at the city jail will thrive no matter where they are placed.

"The Baltimore City Detention Center officers are prepared for anything," she said. "If they can work at BCDC, they can work anywhere."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

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