Baltimore youth jail: Planning a monument to failure

I wanted to put myself in their shoes.

Last week, I was informed that the Baltimore Safe and Sound Campaign will rally against the youth jail slated for construction near the Baltimore City Detention Center, not far from my old neighborhood in East Baltimore. The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services commissioned the new jail specifically for children charged as adults, dozens of whom are being housed in an annex of the Detention Center across the street. Child advocacy groups have criticized the state's plans for years, but with veteran civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson scheduled to address a crowd in front of City Hall, the Nov. 8 event could be the biggest statement of opposition yet.

I've followed the debate over the facility for a while and got in touch with organizers to report on rally preparations, but as I sifted through everything I knew, it didn't seem like enough. I needed to do something to make the budget projections and arguments for and against the jail speak to me in a way that they hadn't up to that point. So last Friday, I grabbed my sleeping bag and drove downtown.

At the moment, the planned site is just a grass-and-rock-covered lot one small city block wide that doubles as overflow parking for Correctional Services staff. A metal fence about 61/2 feet high surrounds the area. "No trespassing" signs are clearly visible, but the space was unguarded and the gate open, so I walked in and chose a spot where I might not be run over.

It was well after midnight, and there was very little foot traffic, but I was constantly on edge, worried that I might be robbed or harassed and that it was a matter of when, not if, someone in a uniform would force me to leave. But no one said a word, so I lay there for several hours, trying to think and feel my way into what the site would become. I was still thinking days after I left.

I'd traveled light: phone, driver's license, about $30 cash. What, I later wondered, might a young inmate have on him when he was arrested? What would he be allowed to take in? A black belt held up my cargo pants. Would that be confiscated and treated like a weapon?

A plan for the facility announced in 2009 called for six housing units, each with "activity space, a multi-purpose room, a counseling room, and an officer's station." Which of those planned rooms was I closest to? Would it have windows? The sky hung low that night and was calm. How often would the kids be able to see it?

More than anything, I thought about the unpredictable rush of panic that made it hard for me to sleep. Rarely had I ever felt more vulnerable, even though I could pack up and leave whenever I wanted to. How much more intense would that feeling be, I wondered, if I were 14, separated from family and friends, and awaiting some long, confusing process I didn't fully understand?

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that youths held at the adult detention center faced serious threats to their physical and mental health. Ten years later, concerns about violence persist. A purpose-built facility might be an improvement, but I can't believe that this is the best we can do.

Others have reached the same conclusion. After conducting an analysis co-sponsored by the state, researchers at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found that if children who were not likely to serve time as adults were kept out of the adult system altogether, 48 beds — less than half the proposed total — could suffice, and that no new detention center would be needed if the state were able to use existing juvenile facilities. Estimates of the projected cost and capacity have been downsized, thanks in part to opposition from groups like Open Society Institute-Baltimore and Safe and Sound, but it should not take so much effort to force the Department of Public Safety to think more carefully about what it's doing. Indeed, some argue that instead of spending tens of millions of dollars on a new jail, we should use that money to give kids the types of opportunities that make jails less necessary. I agree. There are alternatives.

Sometimes, a lack of imagination can be fatal. Today, what some state officials see is a parking lot. But if they look closely at that stretch of Madison Street and project not far into the future, they should be able to make out the contours of one giant monument to failure.

For more information about next Thursday's rally, go to

Lionel Foster is a freelance writer from Baltimore. His column appears Fridays. Email: Twitter: @LionelBMD.

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