The Wicomico County Detention Center is accused in a federal lawsuit of violating the constitutional rights of seven inmates by denying them access to legal counsel to whom they wished to air complaints about alleged brutality.
The Maryland American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on the inmates' behalf. The court is asked to prohibit the jail from blocking the inmates' access to counsel.
Named as defendants in addition to the detention center are John W. Welch Jr., director of the county's Department of Corrections; Assistant Warden Richard Darling; and Wicomico County Attorney Edgar A. Baker Jr.
Welch and Baker denied the allegations shortly after the suit was filed.
"I can't see how this institution can be a brutal institution when we can be 100 percent in compliance with state standards," Welch said.
Last month, the seven inmates complained via telephone and letters to the ACLU about alleged brutality by guards at the 314-inmate center in Salisbury, the suit says.
On Nov. 29, the suit says, an ACLU paralegal was barred from talking with the plaintiffs and was told she couldn't visit them because of a pending discrimination suit against the center filed by a former employee, who also is represented by the ACLU.
ACLU staff attorney Deborah A. Jeon said that, because the paralegal wasn't allowed access to the seven inmates, the ACLU hasn't been able to confirm the validity of the alleged brutality, including charges that a guard broke an inmate's arm and that another inmate was beaten by jailers.
"Because it's a clear violation of their constitutional rights, we acted immediately," Jeon said of the suit.
Baker said jail policy prohibits non-professionals from visiting inmates during non-visiting hours. He said that paralegals aren't "professionals."
Baker said that, essentially, the ACLU failed to follow proper visitation procedures.
"You're taking inmates out of their regular routine, which requires extra work" for security staff, Baker said, adding that attorneys are welcome to visit inmates.
He said the matter could possibly have been resolved with a telephone call.