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The Corrections

Inmates at the Baltimore Detention Center Want Out--But Until Then They'd Like Medical Care, Decent Food, and Humane Treatment

Photos by Jefferson Jackson Steele
Slammed: Detention center commissioner William Smith inside the jail
Former detainee Ren' Torrence gestures to the third and fourth floors where she served time
Former detainee Pamela Lowery stands outside the entrance of a facility she calls "inhumane."
Behind Closed Doors: Public justice center attorney Sally Dworak-Fisher is troubled by allegations of abuse, neglect, and violence at the Baltimore Detention Center.
Women In Cages: National Women's Prison Project director and founder Alfreda Robinson says that to improve jail conditions "we have to soften the public attitude--but I just don't know how to do it."
Long Time Coming: Wendy Hess of the Public Justice Center is still working to expose problems at the city detention center that have been the source of complaints and legal wrangling for more than 30 years.

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 5/19/2004

Susan German (not her real name) wasn't expecting to go to jail in July 2003. But what she describes as a normal day flared into a fight with her boyfriend. She says he attacked her, that she grabbed her cell phone and tried to call 911, that he took the phone and threw it on the ground. She says he knocked her down, but that she managed to run to her car where she had a "tiny vegetable knife, this little two-inch knife," which she used to drive back her attacker with a slash wound to his stomach.

Minutes later, when the police responded to the 911 call she'd attempted to make, she was surprised to find herself being cuffed and taken away to be charged with attempted murder. At that moment, she says, she realized things were looking bad for her. But they were about to get worse.

German was brought to the city's Central Booking and Intake Facility, the state-run complex attached to the Baltimore City Detention Center, where she says she sat for 24 hours in a room with 16 other women. German is a recovering heroin addict and was on methadone maintenance therapy at the time of her arrest. Taking the drug helped keep her away from heroin; based on past experience, she knew that missing her daily dose of the drug also had serious consequences.

"I'm off it now," she says. "But the thing is at that time I knew immediately that if I didn't get methadone I was gonna get sick, go into seizures, convulsions, whatever.

"Every time a corrections officer would come by the door, I would try to talk to them and tell them about my medical problem," German says. "But their reaction was, ‘Tell somebody when you get into the Quarantine'--the place where you go when you're in the process of going into jail."

German says that before she even left Central Booking she started to feel shaky, and she tried to explain to one of the guards that she feared having a seizure, as she'd had them before. Nobody would help her, she says, and she was moved from Central Booking to the Quarantine unit in the Women's Detention Center of the city jail.

"At this point, it's been over 24 hours, so I knew it was coming," German says. "They took us to Quarantine, and I filled out a sick-call slip. I was shaking so bad and feeling so sick I could not even write. I told them I felt like I was gonna die. Those were my exact words, ‘I feel like I'm going to die, I'm on methadone, I've been on it for 10 years, I need help.'"

Instead of help, German says she was directed to go with the rest of the women booked the night before to visit the public defender's office on the fourth floor of the Women's Detention Center.

"I'm telling the woman who's asking me questions that I need to see a doctor, I'm gonna have a seizure," German says. "She said, ‘Tell a [corrections officer].' I got up from her desk, went into the next room, and when I sat down, this is what I'm told happened--the public defender said I jumped up and slammed my face into the wall and hit the ground. When they turned me over, blood was gushing out of my forehead, chin, and the whole left side of my face."

Lisa Moorhead, an attorney with the city public defender's office who was in the room and witnessed the scene, confirms German's account of the seizure. Moorhead also witnessed what happened after German collapsed.

"She slid to the floor and fell with her face on the floor, and clearly there was blood," Moorhead says. "One of the support staff for the public defender's office called for a nurse, and a nurse came within about two minutes. . . . She grabbed Ms. German by her prison uniform, keeping her at arm's length, I'm guessing because of the blood, and she was calling for gloves while she was holding onto Ms. German.

"[The nurse] was holding her at arm's length--it was almost like picking up a rag doll the way she was holding her by the back of the jumpsuit," Moorhead says. "It didn't look like a particularly caring approach, if you know what I'm saying. . . . The most concerning part of it for me was, if there was something more severe going on than a seizure, what else could have happened to Ms. German?"

German had experienced a grand mal seizure as a result of withdrawal from methadone. Once she regained consciousness, she says she remembers being brought to the Women's Detention Center infirmary, where "they just put me in a cell and that's it," she says.

For nearly two weeks, German experienced withdrawal symptoms so severe that she could not eat or drink or walk. She says she received no treatment for her symptoms, though the jail's medical staff observed her vomiting and getting sicker. On her 16th day in the infirmary, she says, she finally got some help--she was put on Librium, placed on an IV, and given a liquid diet supplement to drink. When she finally stabilized, she says she was put on medication for seizures and moved into a dorm within the jail to await her hearing.

Nearly a month later, she was called to the jail's infirmary. The sick-call slip she had filled out her first day in the jail after she left Central Booking had only just made its way through the maddeningly slow administrative system of the jail's medical unit.

"I said, ‘What am I here for?' And the nurse said, ‘Your sick-call slip,'" German says. "I was like, ‘My sick-call slip? That was four weeks ago.' She gave me a piece of paper and she said, ‘You have to sign this.' But it was a piece of paper with nothing on it. I got a copy of it later, not in my writing, saying that I had refused medical treatment."

German's story is not unique. It is one of many similar stories being compiled by Baltimore's Public Justice Center for use in court. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Public Justice Center, and longtime prisoners' advocate and attorney Frank Dunbaugh are the plaintiffs in a legal motion against the state Division of Pretrial Detention and Services, which has been in charge of the city detention center since 1991, alleging that the care given to those detained at the jail is dangerous, inhumane, and unconstitutional. The motion was filed late last year, and the state Division of Pretrial Detention and Services has requested that it be dismissed. A hearing on the case is now scheduled for June; U.S. District Court Judge Frederick J. Motz will preside.

"The Baltimore City Detention Center (‘BCDC') is an institution in crisis," the court papers filed by the plaintiffs in December 2003 argue. "Thousands of men, women and children, most of whom have not been convicted of any crime, are exposed to dangerous conditions. BCDC routinely ignores detainees' urgent and critical health care needs. The facility is also plagued with physical plant deficiencies, resulting in an unsafe and unsanitary living environment."

The state Division of Pretrial Detention and Services contends that it's caring properly for its inmates and has asked the court to dismiss the ACLU's court motion.

But that doesn't stop former inmates like German from telling their stories.


"You scared yet?" an employee of the Baltimore City Detention Center asks a visitor entering the Madison Street Detention Center on a recent tour.

There seems very little to be scared of. The facility looks old and a bit creaky, with its chain-link gates, security booths, and padlocks. The most intimidating aspect of it is probably the looming gray castlelike building, constructed in 1859, that dominates the interior courtyard once the first security gate slams shut behind you. Suddenly, you are locked inside the 18th-largest pretrial corrections facility in the country, where more than 43,000 inmates were housed over the course of 2003.

The facility, parts of which date to 1803, is one of the oldest jail buildings in the United States, and parts of it betray its age--the chipped paint in halls and dorms, portable "chilling units" that combat the summer heat in lieu of air conditioning, and temporary trailers to provide space for schooling and drug programs are sure signs that the jail building has long been pushed to its limits.

If the jail's maze of concrete-block buildings and tall gates seems confusing from the outside, it's even more so once you're in. The Women's Detention Center itself is practically lost inside the main facility. The only way to easily access it is by walking through a concrete walkway protected by chain-link fence, past the portion of the Men's Detention Center where juvenile inmates are house, down into a hallway into the basement, outside into another courtyard, then, finally, into the circa-1971 building. Once inside, you're met with the kind of stale air typical of any institutional setting--a sort of humid mix of sweat, dust, and antiseptic lingers in the air.

Women's Detention Center administrator Diana Anim and Division of Pretrial Detention and Services Commissioner William Smith lead the tour and point out housing for the jail's kitchen workers, expecting mothers, and mental-health patients--even a sparsely furnished dorm devoted to acupuncture therapy to treat drug addiction for those inmates who qualify. All the dorms, save the maternity one, are furnished with double bunk beds made up with standard-issue white sheets and blankets, and they house anywhere from eight ( in sick dorms) to 20 or more women. It's 2:30 in the afternoon, and in nearly every dorm room the women lie in bed, partially covered with sheets or blankets.

"They are in lockdown for count," Anim explains of the lack of activity. Former inmates interviewed for this story, however, claim that women are in lockdown nearly all the time--23 hours a day in their dorms with only one hour of recreation per day, which is spent in the top-floor gym.

This particular afternoon, the facility doesn't seem like the rodent-ridden hellhole many make it out to be, but neither does it seem like a comfortable place to bide time while waiting to find out whether a court will send you to prison or set you free.

Anim tries to make it sound at least a little cheerful: Although the gym is empty during this inspection tour, she says that women use it to exercise, play basketball, or use the Ping-Pong tables. "Some ladies just like to sit and talk and play cards or board games," she says. On Mothers' Day, she adds, the women are allowed to go out on the wire-enclosed rooftop for a cookout.


The history of legal wrangles over conditions at the facility stretches back more than 30 years, to when it was run by the city and was known as the Baltimore City Jail. In 1971, inmates filed a class-action lawsuit against the jail to challenge what they considered inhumane and unconstitutional conditions. The suit cited, among other things, delays in receiving medical services and health care, insufficient nutrition, unsanitary food handling, impeded access to religious services, and impeded ability for trial preparation. (One interesting footnote is that actor/director Charles S. Dutton, who spent nine years in prison for killing a man in Baltimore, was one of the plaintiffs in this first lawsuit).

In 1976, inmates brought another suit to address overcrowding at the jail. In 1977, the U.S. District Court in Maryland and the jail agreed to a series of consent decrees, a legally binding court agreement, under which the jail consented to provide better treatment to its charges. The decree was revised over the years to adjust to changes made in the facility, and in 1991 the state formed a new agency, the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services, which assumed responsibility for the Baltimore City Jail, which it renamed the Baltimore City Detention Center. With that, the state also assumed the troubles that were associated with it.

Conditions at the jail were still being hashed out in the courts in 1993, when the U.S. District Court once again revised the agreement with the detention center and the state and mandated that it provide "appropriate care" for detainees at the facility, including adequate health care, nutritional services, and safe, clean living quarters. Yet tales of preventable deaths, medical neglect, and unsanitary conditions continued to surface in the media throughout the '90s, as did complaints to advocacy groups such as the ACLU.

In 1994, for example, The Sun reported that the facility was frequently over capacity, accommodating an average of 3,100 to 3,300 detainees daily in a facility designed to hold 2,900. In 1995 Judge Motz criticized jail officials for regularly violating population limits. "You all are really having me preside over the evisceration of this consent decree," Motz was quoted by The Sun as saying during a hearing on overcrowding. Despite his harsh words, he didn't take action against the jail, saying that sanctions would serve no purpose since the increasing number of arrests was not under the jail's control.

By 1996, the jail had also come under fire from jail advocates for its inability to meet the medical needs of inmates due to lack of medical staff and supplies. In July 1997, 26 inmates sued the state for failing to provide them with adequate health care, as ordered under the consent decree, and Annapolis attorney Frank Dunbaugh filed a petition on behalf of all inmates at the facility asking that a federal judge fine the state for failing to meet the 1993 consent decree's demands.

But in 1997, Pretrial Detention and Services petitioned the court to terminate the consent order, and on Oct. 31, 1997, the court complied with the request. The 1995 federal Prison Litigation Reform Act made it virtually impossible for the courts to uphold court actions against prisons and jails if they were "overly broad." In addition, the jail has in past satisfied the courts by saying that it will meet certain requirements of the consent decree or telling the courts that it has a plan to work on the issues the consent decree raises (an argument that the state Division of Pretrial Detention and Services is making in response to the current court actions). The court closed the decree "subject to being reopened upon the request of defendants at any time"; less than two years later, a report released by the New York-based nonprofit Human Rights Watch indicated that the decree may have been lifted prematurely.

In 1999, Human Rights Watch issued a report on conditions for juvenile inmates held at the jail, deeming it a grim and inappropriate place to house teenage offenders. "Children endure dimly lit, dreary cells infested with vermin and face daily risks to their personal safety," the report, titled "No Minor Matter," charged. Human Rights Watch demanded that the state "ensure that the conditions of confinement for children meet all of the requirements of health, safety, and human dignity."

LaMont Flanagan, then the state's commissioner of Pretrial and Detention Services, dismissed the report as "fiction" and told The Sun in 2000, after a federal investigation of the jail was launched based partially on Human Rights Watch's findings, "we're not the Hyatt of jails, but we are the Motel 6."

In 2001, Mayor Martin O'Malley swept into office on a platform to improve public safety and mandated that the police crack down on crime. The jail's overcrowding problems continued, Flanagan said in media reports, thanks to increasing numbers of arrests--many of them drug arrests--under the new mayor's watch. By the summer of 2001, both the detention center and Central Booking were bursting at the seams. Detainees who were housed at the facility since O'Malley took office note that there are times when the facility has become so crowded that it faced bed shortages, leaving some some inmates to sleep on mattresses on the floor. According to a February 2004 letter from Commissioner William Smith to state Sen. James E. DeGrange Jr. (D) still persists to this day.

"The Baltimore City Detention Center [is] housing pretrial detainees and sentenced inmates well above the operating capacity and the population cap established by the federal consent decree," reads the letter, written in preparation for hearings on recommendations to address persistent problems at the jail. The letter blames "increased arrest activity of the law-enforcement agencies in the city of Baltimore," special violent-crime initiatives in the city, higher bails being imposed on detainees, and increasing lengths of stay for detainees as among the reasons for the jail's inflated population.

In August 2002, during a particularly severe heat wave in the city, lawyers from the city public defender's office began filing motions to have some of their female clients released from the jail because it was getting so hot inside that women were becoming ill. Judge Motz ordered that the facility provide air conditioning for the 580 women being held in the Women's Detention Center that August. One inmate, Dianne Davenport, submitted an op-ed piece that was published in The Sun on Aug. 10, 2002. The piece, titled "The Cruel State of Women's Jail," claimed that "during the summer it is so hot in here that the concrete walls sweat along with us. The punishing heat is beyond belief. And in the winter it is extremely cold. Sometimes it is so cold that I won't get off my bunk except for meals and I can see my breath in the air. And the toilets have a thin layer of ice in the winter."

The jail's problems culminated that year with the release of a scathing report assembled by the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division that documented violations of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which ensures constitutional rights for all incarcerated U.S. citizens. The Department of Justice's report, which was created after years of investigations of the facility spurred by numerous inmate complaints and the 1999 Human Rights Watch report, noted that "certain conditions at BCDC violate the constitutional rights of inmates . . . [and] we find that persons confined suffer harm or the risk of serious harm from deficiencies in the facility's fire safety protections, medical care, mental health care, sanitation, opportunity to exercise, and protection of juveniles."

The report's findings, which were sent to then-Gov. Parris Glendening, state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., Flanagan, and Ralph Logan, warden of the jail, included inoperable fire alarms; improper maintenance of the buildings' sprinkler systems; no sprinkler systems at all in the women's drug treatment building and the education building; failure to accurately screen incoming detainees for medical issues; insufficient medical staffing to care for inmates; no treatment or supervision for inmates suffering from drug or alcohol withdrawal ("While they have stock medication available for treating drug withdrawal, they rarely use them," the report notes.); failure to provide necessary emergency medical care; expired and unsanitary medical equipment; inadequate opportunity for exercise; and more. The Department of Justice made a list of 107 recommendations that needed to be met to bring the facility up to the minimum standards of care for inmates. On Aug. 22, 2002, a portion of the consent decree that was suspended in 1997 was reopened, mandating that the jail's administrators immediately provide heat relief for inmates held in the Women's Detention Center.


"When I started, the heat strategies and consent decree had just kicked in," recalls William Smith, who was appointed to his position permanently in June 2003, of his start as the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services' commissioner. It was the first year that the jail was forced to find some way to remediate the heat problems in the Women's Detention Center, per the consent decree, "so I hit the ground running," Smith says.

He says he recognized that there were problems at the jail, and his first move was to "tighten up the span of control," which at the women's jail meant putting a new facility administrator, Diana Anim, in place to make sure that complaints, building inadequacies, and persistent problems were being addressed.

The measures he put in place, Smith says, including more comprehensive intake screening of women coming to the facility, which helped to identify those at risk for heat-related injuries. The jail also purchased air conditioners, "chillers," dehumidifiers, and fans to cool off the dormitory rooms. Permanent thermometers were installed to monitor the air temperature at the facility. (According to a digital thermometer reading when City Paper received a tour of the jail in April, it was 80.5 degrees in the jail's empty gymnasium.) The jail administration also arranged to provide "daily respite" from the heat for all the women at the detention center by rotating them in and out of the gym, which is equipped with a rented, trailer-mounted chiller, between May 1 and September 30, months identified by the court as being the hottest in Baltimore City and therefore the most important months for the jail to provide some escape from the brutal heat.

According to Smith and Larry Pomeroy, vice president of American Service Group, the parent company of Prison Health Services, the private contractor that provides medical services for the jail, more staffing has been added at the facility--especially at the Women's Detention Center--to better screen detainees who might need medical care and to provide faster, more efficient care for those who become ill while in the jail.

"We here at the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services are doing everything we can to make sure that this facility is clean and safe," Smith says. "There's been a lot said about the detention center before, but things are different. There has been a tremendous change in the effort put forth to make sure this building is clean and safe. . . . Obviously, the consent decree brought up some issues, and I addressed those issues. I addressed all of the Department of Justice issues."

Smith says the Division has replied to the ACLU/Public Justice Center motion to hold the jail to the consent decree by requesting that it be dismissed.

He acknowledges that the current jail buildings are not "conducive to a lot of things we'd like to do here." But he points out that he has put together a long-term master plan for the facility, which includes the eventual construction of a new Women's Detention Center and improvements to the rest of the facility. Should things go the way Smith expects them to, the state will approve the acquisition of property across the street from the current detention center buildings. Construction of the new women's jail could be completed within 12 years. "The money has been approved," he says. "And the contract will probably go to bid in 2005."

Though advocates acknowledge that some important improvements have been made at the jail, unsafe and inhumane conditions persist. While a new facility would likely address some of the problems inmates experience now, advocates note that according to the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services' master plan, it would be at least a dozen years before a new jail could open its doors, and that start date is, the ACLU court papers point out, "contingent on funds from the legislature," which may have other priorities if strapped for cash in the coming years. In the meantime, thousands of men and women arrested in Baltimore City would face many of the same problems the jail has been trying to fix for more than 30 years.

The ACLU/Public Justice Center court motion would force the jail's administrators to provide relief for detainees immediately. While the motion's sponsors say they understand that no jail can ever be perfect, they contend that, at the very least, re-establishing the consent decree would force the jail to alleviate the most egregious problems that detainees face.

"They claim that they are doing things to improve the facility," says Wendy Hess, staff attorney for the Public Justice Center. But she notes that "nearly all of those things are set forth as issues they are thinking of doing, plan to do, are seeking funding to do, and other such noncommittal statements of future intent. In addition, the bulk of the actions or intended actions were dealing with the physical plant and sanitation, not medical care. While we applaud efforts to improve the facility, there is a present and ongoing constitutional violation that must be remedied now and with certainty."


Despite improvements Smith has made to the facility during his tenure ask anyone who's come out of the Baltimore City Detention Center lately--especially the Women's Detention Center--and you will likely hear stories about poor or nonexistent health care, poor sanitation, and other problems.

Renae Torrence, house manager for a local residential group home for recently released jail detainees, says she spent a year at the jail back in 1999, and she describes it as "hell."

"There was naked ladies everywhere because it was so hot," she remembers of summer inside the detention center. "Everybody walked around in panties and bras, sweating and wearing towels. And most of the women [in Quarantine] were sick from heroin, throwing up on themselves. They couldn't even move."

As house manager, Torrence says, she supervises the women who come directly from the Women's Detention Center. She says the stories she hears from the newly arrived do not make it sound like much has improved. From what she hears, she says, "I think it's actually got worse."

Pam Lowery says she has been in and out of the jail for various charges for the past 24 years. In an odd way, this makes her an authority on the jail's problems.

"The sewage leak in L Dorm has been there since 1980, a pipe that has raw sewage coming out of it," Lowery says. "There are still beds under it. They just move the beds or the people, wrap the leaks in yellow tape, and wait for it to start leaking again. . . . I saw the warden once and I asked him when the leak was going to be fixed in L Dorm, and he said, ‘I dunno, how long you gonna be here?'"

Over the years, she says, Lowery has shared dorms with women who've had AIDS and hepatitis, seizure disorders, severe withdrawal symptoms from heroin or other drugs, and worse.

"I remember the death of a girl from a kidney infection," she says. "And another girl whose bowels broke open in the dorm. . . . Another girl, Karen, was very sick, she had hepatitis, jaundice, she was HIV-positive. She had to wear diapers, and a lot of times she had to lay in bed with pissy diapers because nobody would come to change it for her. So [the inmates] did it for her."

Lowery says she hopes her last stint at the jail will be her last. She was picked up on drug charges during a raid on a house in August 2002 and released in February after spending 18 months there (despite the fact that the jail is supposed to be a short-term holding facility for people awaiting trial). While she was there, she suffered two strokes that left her with limited mobility on one side of her body. She gets around OK these days, but when she was in the Women's Detention Center, she says, there were times when she could barely move at all. She was placed in the jail's medical dormitory, where she received some medical care, but Lowery says she did not get proper medical attention at the jail and was never hospitalized outside the walls of the detention center.

"I lost the use of my left side, but I got no physical therapy," she says. "They wouldn't let me walk through the jail with my cane because it was considered a weapon. I had to learn to walk again by myself."

Lowery says the only way she could get around was with the help of other women in the jail. When she was having problems, she says, "girls would help pull me down the hall because I could not walk."

She also contends that when other inmates offered one another too much assistance, it would sometimes grate on the nerves of certain corrections officers.

"There was a girl once who had a seizure in O Dorm," Lowery says. "She was in the shower, and me and another girl carried her out. An officer walked by and said to us, ‘Get the F away from her! Where the fuck is your medical license? Who do you think you are, Dr. Spock?'"

She says the guard called for medical assistance, but she says by the time someone arrived to help, the girl was already recovering.

"They made her get up off the floor and get in a wheelchair by herself," Lowery says.

The city Detention Center is so unpleasant, in fact, that Torrence says it made her look forward to state prison.

"When I was in BCDC, I couldn't wait to get to Jessup," she remembers. "People would say, ‘What, are you crazy?' But Jessup was way better. It was cleaner, we got real food, it was nicer."


Part of the problem with places like the Baltimore City Detention Center, says Alfreda Robinson, director and founder of the National Women's Prison Project, is not so much the facilities themselves but problems inherent in the criminal justice system's attitude toward those who commit crimes.

"There is a dichotomy between staff and inmates," she says. "The mind-set of people working in corrections is custody."

Robinson, who spent 10 years in prison on a drug charge, including a brief stint in the Women's Detention Center in Baltimore, says that under the tenure of Commissioner Smith there has been some attempt to clean things up at the jail. However, she says that former commissioner LaMont Flanagan "is leaving a hole--a deficit situation at that jail" that she worries will never be filled without a comprehensive review of its problems and the creation of a civilian review board made up of former inmates and members of the community. After all, she points out, so many people who live within city limits have spent or will spend time at the jail that it's in the community's best interest to make sure they get the right kind of care to help them reintegrate into society. "If they don't," Robinson says, "they'll end up coming out crazier than when they first went in."

At the Baltimore City Detention Center, Robinson says, even the most basic things need to be improved, and that improvement is only going to start with a change in attitude of the staff at the facility--something that can't be forced through a lawsuit. For example, she says, it is common practice at the Women's Detention Center for detainees to do their laundry in the toilets rather than send them through the jail's laundry service.

"Personally, I know it does not come back clean," she says. "And with the communicable diseases people have, you tend to want to wash your own clothes just to make sure you get back the same sheets. These are the kinds of things people do to deal with things there."

But since the people at the Baltimore City Detention Center are in custody, Robinson says, people tend to think of them as already guilty and therefore don't hold out much sympathy for them. The best way to make change happen at the detention center--or any other prison or jail, for that matter--is through the unincarcerated public, she says.

"We have to soften the public attitude," she says. "But I just don't know how to do that."

In the meantime, says Sally Dworak Fisher, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, the court motion being brought against the detention center might help force the jail's administration to pay immediate attention to what it considers some of the most pressing needs: medical care for detainees and better maintenance of the aging facility so that it doesn't harm those housed within.

In 2003, for example, the Baltimore City Department of Health inspected the food-preparation areas at the jail and found "infestation of roaches, mouse infestation, unsanitary conditions, and improper food temperatures," according to inspection reports.

"Normal procedures would require the closure of the facility," an internal e-mail memo from the health department noted. "But the prison food service cannot provide food from another source."

Commissioner Smith says the problems with the food service as reported in the inspection reports have since been corrected.

Still, the stories keep coming.


The Toll

The following is an informal list of deaths at the Baltimore City Detention Center since 1997, the year the consent decree was terminated, compiled from information in the U.S. Department of Justice's 2002 report on the jail and news reports published in The Sun. Prisoners' rights advocates who are familiar with the Baltimore City Detention Center contend many of the deaths listed below could likely have been prevented if the inmates had received adequate and timely health treatment.


June 1997: Shirley James, cause of death unknown. James was found unconscious in her cell, and police reported that there was no indication of foul play. Friends and family members expressed concerns about her sudden death, nothing that James had no known major medical concerns. (Source: The Sun)

August 1997: Quentin Morgan, cause of death possibly drug related. Morgan was found dead in his cell with a needle and syringe containing an unidentified substance in his arm. (The Sun)

September 1997: George Hadaway, suicide. Hadaway hanged himself in his cell inside the jail's medical unit. (The Sun)

August 1999: Name unknown, died of asthma. Inmate reported wheezing and required medical attention, but relief of bronchiospasms was never achieved. (Source: U.S. Department of Justice)

2000-'01: According to the U.S. Department of Justice report, "there were at least five completed suicides during the six months prior to our on-site investigation of BCDC."

May 2000: Name unknown, died of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Inmate died after a day and a half at the jail. His file did not show any medical screening or attention during his stay at the facility, but an investigation of his death revealed that he had cocaine and other drugs in his system. (U.S. Department of Justice)

July 2000: Name unknown, died of cardiovascular disease. Inmate was in custody for 24 hours, and his screening information indicated that he had a history of heroin addiction and high blood pressure, for which he took medication. Inmate did not receive any medical attention during his first 24 hours in the jail and died of cardiovascular disease complicated by heroin withdrawal. (U.S. Department of Justice)

August 2000: Name unknown, suicide. A 29-year-old inmate hanged herself by tying a paper gown around her neck. She was given the paper gown, instead of a suicide smock, in violation of a physician's orders. (U.S. Department of Justice)

November 2000: Name unknown, cause of death unknown. Inmate collapsed, and it took several minutes for corrections personnel to respond to calls for help from a fellow inmate. It took even longer
for medical staff to arrive and begin CPR. (U.S. Department of Justice)

December 2000: Name unknown, died of asthma. Inmate was unable to breathe, and it reportedly took corrections officers 15 minutes to contact the medical unit. Inmate died of uncontrolled asthma attack. Records indicated that he had been seen a month earlier by the medical staff for such severe asthma that he should have been put on an IV. (U.S. Department of Justice) (ES)

"We'd have toilets stop up for days on end," Lowery attests. "I'd have to put a plastic bag on my hand and reach down in it to fix it. We didn't have plungers, and no one else would come fix it. Now I'm the best little plumber there is."

Lowery and others released from the jail recently have been happy to supply the Public Justice Center with anecdotes to bolster the court motion against the Baltimore City Detention Center. "I made a promise to myself and to the other girls when I left that I was not going to forget them this time," she says, noting that when you're on the inside you feel powerless to help yourself or your fellow detainees.

"When you are there, you're all for change," Lowery says. "But if you try to organize, you get in trouble because they consider it starting a riot. But when you get out, you kind of just go on with your life. But not this time. There is just so much going on over there. . . . The law says innocent until proven guilty. Well, I'm sorry, but it's guilty until proven innocent there. They just cage you up like you're an animal."

Lowery says she has been talking to the Public Justice Center and anyone else who will listen about what she believes is "inhumane" treatment at the jail because she says there's no way for anyone on the outside to really know what it's like.

"It's disgusting," she says. "But when they know somebody's coming, they lock everyone down, and they'll start painting, they'll start scraping, they'll start buffing the floors."

Should the ACLU/Public Justice Center motion be successful, Dworak-Fisher, Hess, and others say, it won't solve all the problems that Baltimore City Detention Center inmates face every day. But as the ACLU/Public Justice Center court papers point out, it's the job of jail administrators and the state to prevent "unsafe and unsanitary environmental conditions" and to ensure that, at the very least, detainees' constitutional rights are met.

"Conditions are unconstitutional if they amount to ‘unquestioned and serious deprivations of basic human needs' or of the ‘minimal civilized measures of life's necessities' (Rhodes v. Chapman 1981)," the motion notes. "A ‘remedy for unsafe conditions need not await a tragic event' (Helling v. McKinney 1993). Prison authorities may not ‘ignore a condition of confinement that is sure or very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering the next week or month or year' merely because no harm has yet occurred." Things that people take for granted--clean clothing and bedding, decent nutrition, access to necessary medical care, and safety--the plaintiffs in the suit charge, are not consistently provided at the Baltimore City Detention Center, especially for women at the jail who tend to endure even worse conditions than the men.

Though the ACLU and Public Justice Center can't ensure that every inadequacy at the jail will be addressed, the organizations hope to at least bring the detention center up to the minimum requirements of the Eighth Amendment and the 1993 consent decree, both of which require that the jail provide "humane conditions of confinement," including adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medical care.

Should that be accomplished, the advocates hope, fewer stories like those of Tanisha Keith will surface. Keith, who was in the Women's Detention Center from Dec. 8, 2002, until June 7, 2003, calls the jail "the horriblest place on Earth. She says that while there she saw women going through detox provided with nothing but plastic bags and buckets to throw up into, rather than medical care. She says there was rarely enough hot water in the showers, and that women with communicable illnesses like staph infections, tuberculosis, and ringworm were housed in close quarters with other inmates.

Keith says she became very depressed during her stay at the jail, and says she was constantly worried about "the bugs--there'd be spiders and roaches and green stuff growing on the walls. You'd see them spray stuff, but nothing would help. Bugs would be crawling up the walls, up on your bunk. They'd be climbing up on you."

Those bugs, she says, almost cost Keith her hearing.

"You know how your ear can get real sore?" she asks. "I was feeling sore in my ear, and was a bump there. It started to get real bad, so I called a corrections officer. I told her, ‘I need to be seen because my ear is swelling up.'"

But Keith says her request for medical attention went unanswered. Every day, she says, the discomfort got worse. She says her balance was off and she often relied on her dorm mates to help her stay steady on her feet.

"My face got hot, and it started to feel like there was fever in it," she says. "Two days later, some stuff started coming out of my ear. I started to get headaches, and I felt all irritated and my face swelled up."

Keith says it took about a week and a half before anyone took her complaints seriously. She finally made it in to see a doctor who had to lance her ear. "Some stuff started to come out of it," she says. "There was a piece of spider in my ear that came out. A spider had gone in my ear."

"It's terrible there, it's so unhealthy," says Susan German, who ended up spending four months in the detention center before she was finally released by the court on a stay. Her first two weeks, during which she went on cold-turkey detox from methadone, were only a small part of what she calls a "terrible, unbelievable, unhealthy" ordeal.

Like many women in the detention center, German says she was put through hell for months, only to be released without being convicted of a crime.

She describes the frustration of constant lockdown, lack of exercise, inability to get a decent meal, watching other women go through horrible withdrawal symptoms, and much untreated sickness.

"While I was there, I became a dorm rep, and this one girl in my dorm was going into seizures," German says. "It was so bad that I had to scream out of the dorm that she was not breathing anymore before anyone even came to help."

But the worst part, she says, was constantly feeling subhuman and wondering whether her next day in the jail would be better than the last.

"It's terrible, I'm telling you," German says. "I'm a human being. Just because I'm locked up doesn't mean you have to be treated like a dog. Not even like a dog. In there, you're nothing."

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