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Ill Communication

In Their Case to Reform Health Care in the City Jail, Advocates Hope Their New Film Will be Just What the Doctor Ordered

Christopher Myers
GIMME THE CURE: The Megaphone Project's Paul Santomenna taped hours of horror stories about medical treatment (and the lack thereof) in the Baltimore City Detention Center.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 1/19/2005

Infected will be screened Jan. 20 at 8 p.m. at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson.

Call (410) 276-1651 or visit Creative Alliance for more information.

“You have to see our concern,” says Carroll Parrish, security chief of the downtown Maryland Transition Center. “When I get a call that there are some people out front with a camera, I got to think, What are they trying to do? Take specs of the wall or something?” He exchanges a meaningful look with the burly guard who has accompanied Parrish on this investigation. “This is something that should have been cleared through us.”

Paul Santomenna fits his digital video camera back onto the tripod. “I think we have a right to be out here,” the filmmaker says, discreetly pushing a button beside the viewfinder.

“It is a public street,” Parrish concedes, but still. What if Santomenna and his intern, 20-year-old art student Sheila Wells, are terrorists in disguise? “And then later on we find out there’s a bomb attached to the building and the whole wall is blown down,” Parrish adds. “But I just let them go, because it’s a public street and they have the right to be out there?”

Santomenna makes a contemplative face, as if digesting this point. Then he assures the security men that his interest in their wall is merely aesthetic. He’s working on a film about the city jail next door, and only stopped to collect an exterior shot for the opening credit sequence. The steam billowing out from a street grate and curling up the yellow wall, he explains, makes the thick jumble of imprisonment facilities look even more ghoulish than ordinary.

Apparently satisfied by this explanation, Parrish and his guard walk off. Santomenna smiles. “I got it all,” he whispers, peering into the camera’s screen to review the footage.

Santomenna is the executive director of the Megaphone Project, a Baltimore nonprofit that provides video production services for local public-justice advocacy groups (“Now Hear This,” Mobtown Beat, June 18, 2003). This isn’t the first time the Wyman Park resident has bumped up against corrections officials since starting work on Infected, a documentary critical of medical care at the Baltimore City Detention Center. Produced for just $2,500 on behalf of the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center, the 18-minute video will have its premiere screening Jan. 20 at Creative Alliance, along with Juvies, a documentary about the California juvenile justice system narrated by actor (and former juvenile offender) Mark Wahlberg.

Homeland security concerns aside, jail officials have reason to be wary of scrutiny. The castlelike structure—sections of which date to the early 19th century—has been the focus of near-constant criticism since the mid-1970s, when inmates at the then-Baltimore City Jail filed a series of class-action lawsuits alleging inadequate health care and inhumane living conditions at the Eager Street facility (“The Corrections,” May 19, 2004). The city’s failure to satisfy a court-mediated agreement, known as a consent decree, to improve the jail ultimately led to the 1991 state takeover of pretrial detention services and to the establishment of a revised consent decree in 1993. But persistent tales of preventable deaths, medical neglect, and unsanitary conditions have continued to trouble prisoners-rights advocacy groups, who have taken the state to task, and to court, ever since.

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing indictment of the city jail’s medical services, confirming many of the inmates’ allegations, including cases in which inmates were denied medication and treatment. In August of last year, the ACLU’s National Prison Project and the Public Justice Center defeated a state motion to terminate the consent decree, and a U.S. District Court judge ruled that inmate advocates may, for the first time, examine records of the Maryland Division of Pretrial and Detention Services. (Before then, advocates’ attorneys relied almost entirely on inmate testimonies.)

Now, while advocacy lawyers examine jail records and wait for the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to have its say on the lower court’s August decision, the Public Justice Center wants to stir up public sentiments about local jail conditions. Which is why it turned to the Megaphone Project.

“I certainly hope [the video] will have an impact on public opinion,” says Elizabeth Alexander, director of the National Prison Project. “I think people have no idea the jail is literally falling down around staff and detainees. And they have no idea how terrible medical care there is.”

Public Justice Center staff say they plan to screen the video at churches and community groups, and send DVD copies to legislators in the Maryland General Assembly. “This is the first time we’ve developed this type of material,” says center attorney Wendy Hess, who cautions that measuring the influence of the video will be difficult. “It’s part of a multipart strategy, so we won’t be able to directly analyze the overall impact in terms of changing conditions and changing policy.”

Megaphone’s Santomenna is less circumspect. “This piece is meant to kick [lawmakers] in the ass,” he says.

For a video with an ass-kicking agenda, Infected employs a rather soft touch. Despite the suggestive title, Santomenna isn’t resorting to scare tactics. “We’re not saying, ‘Oh, we’d better clean up the jail or we’re all going to get hepatitis,’” he says. “We’re more appealing to people’s better natures. Not so much trying to scare them, but trying to induce them to feel compassion for people who are suffering.”

The film is composed mainly of interviews with former inmates who allege that medical staff denied them access to prescription drugs and medical treatment.

“They did absolutely nothing for me,” says David Lowery in a typical interview, claiming that he was denied insulin for his diabetes while held at the jail for 48 hours. “I ate absolutely nothing. Well, I had a piece of bread. But I know if I’d eaten more my situation would have gotten worse. When I left, I couldn’t see. My eyes were completely bugged out. I could barely think. My temperature wasn’t regulating itself right.”

In another segment, a breast cancer patient says jail staff neglected to treat pus leaking from a surgical wound, requiring her to take antibiotics after her release. There are also interviews with family and friends of Deborah Epifano, an HIV+ woman who developed meningitis while at the city jail last year and died shortly after being transferred to a hospital.

Despite secretly capturing his confrontation with the prison officer, Santomenna says he was told by the Public Justice Center not to attempt to film inside the jail or to interview jail officials, for fear of alienating the state during the legal discovery process. If that means the final product is one-sided, well, Santomenna makes no claim to objectivity. “We try to be accurate, but we don’t claim to be journalists,” he says.

For their part, executives from Prison Health Services, the Tennessee-based contractor that provides medical services to the detention center, “would have been delighted to [be interviewed] and clear up any misimpression that anyone had,” company spokesman Steven Alschuler says. “But they were not asked to do so.”

Inmate advocates describe Prison Health Services as a company notorious for stingy medical service, as evidenced by the more than 1,000 lawsuits currently filed against it. Alschuler wouldn’t comment on specific suits against the company but says, “I will tell you that the number of lawsuits per capita against Prison Health Services are much lower than the national average in correctional health care. It’s a litigious population.”

Senior officials at the Maryland Division of Pretrial and Detention Services declined to comment on Infected, but department spokeswoman Barbara Cooper read a prepared statement over the phone: “Living conditions have improved at Baltimore City Detention Center. And the department will continue to identify opportunities to make changes and improvements at the center.”

That pat response doesn’t surprise Sally Dworak-Fisher, another attorney with the Public Justice Center. “What response can they have other than to just fix it?” she says.

The state’s next opportunity to fix—or continue improving—inmate health services at the city jail will come July 1, when the medical services contract for the jail is renewed. Requests for proposals from health-care providers have already been sent out, and they include “sizable increases for medical services,” according to Prison Health Services, which says that, despite all the unpleasant attention, it will seek to extend its five-year relationship with the Baltimore jail.

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