At the Baltimore City Jail these days, it's a shell game.
In the past few weeks, as more and more prisoners have filled the jail, jail officials have awakened inmates in the wee hours of the morning, moved dozens into police lockups for several hours and then returned them to the jail just after the 5 a.m. count, a lawyer for the inmates said yesterday.
The moves have been made to keep the jail population within the limits mandated by a federal court order, said Frank M. Dunbaugh, the lawyer representing inmates in their long-standing fight to improve conditions at the jail.
As many as 50 inmates a night are being ferried to police lockups across the city, he said. "If they kept them in the jail, they would be over the cap," Mr. Dunbaugh said. "They're trying to hide these people."
L. Tracy Brown, a spokeswoman for Jail Commissioner Barbara A. Bostick, said yesterday, "We can't comment."
But today, jail officials will have to explain their actions to U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman, who has presided over the inmates' 14-year legal fight to improve conditions. The 100-year-old jail is under a federal court order to limit the population to 2,748 inmates.
The jail was only nine inmates below the limit yesterday, a radically different scenario from what has prevailed at the jail in recent months.
The woefully crowded conditions at the jail that began in the summer of 1989 and continued through the rest of last year subsided earlier this year because of measures implemented by the jail, city judges and other members of the criminal justice system, including early releases, home monitoring programs and speedy trials.
In the past six months, jail officials have reported that the population was as many as 100 inmates below the cap. But in recent weeks, the gap has grown smaller and smaller.
Today's meeting before Judge Kaufman was prompted by Mr. Dunbaugh, who insisted in an Oct. 10 letter to the city that the jail stop "sending sleepovers to the lockups."
He said the jail sent 15 inmates to the Central District lockup Monday night, 10 to the Southwest, 24 to the Northeast and five to Eastern District.
"They are not counting those people" in the daily 5 a.m. tabulation of the jail's population, statistics that the city must report to the federal court under Judge Kaufman's order, Mr. Dunbaugh said.
For most of the day, he said, many of these inmates are kept in what are known as "day rooms,"lounges that have been stripped of furniture.
"What concerns me the most about these people is they're put in a room with no place to sit down, no place to lie down," he said.
"They don't have a towel. There's no toilet," he said. "There's no ++ medical attention."
On Tuesday, George E. McCullough, who had been sent to the jail on auto theft charges, said he was one of the uncounted. He said that as he slept on the floor in a jail day room -- along with dozens of other inmates -- he was awakened at about 4 a.m., handcuffed, shackled and driven to the Southwestern police district.
Mr. McCullough, 30, of Northwest Baltimore said that he stayed in the lockup less than two hours and was returned to the jail just before daylight.
"It's so overcrowded over there they have to sneak you out because they don't have nowhere for them to sleep," said Mr. McCullough, who posted bail and was released Wednesday.
Dennis S. Hill, a spokesman for the Police Department, said yesterday that the "sleepovers" had not posed any problems for the police districts, which routinely accept jail inmates when asked to do so by jail officials.
Mr. Dunbaugh said that while the jail had previously let prisoners intended for the jail remain in police lockups longer than usual, this was the first time the city had moved inmates from the jail to the lockups and then returned them to the jail.
"It's the same old problem -- they've got more people coming in than going out," he said.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke attributed conditions at the jail to several factors, including a depleted jail fund that is used to help bail out poor inmates.
He said yesterday that judges were sending more prisoners to the
jail rather than the state prison system and placing more restrictions on their stays at the jail, including prohibiting inmates from being released on a home monitoring program.
Judge Joseph A. Ciotola, the administrative judge of the Baltimore District Court who instituted several programs last year to help jail officials relieve crowding, said last night that jail officials had not alerted him to any new problems.
"No one's contacted me on overcrowding. No one has told me my judges are sentencing more people to the jail than other places," he said. "I haven't heard from anyone that the jail is overcrowded."