Grand jury sounds alarm over security at City Jail

March 29, 1991|By Ann LoLordo

The Baltimore City Jail is "dangerously understaffed" and ill-equipped to provide a safe, secure environment for employees and inmates, according to a report by a city grand jury.

The grand jury also found that correctional officers at the jail were not receiving yearly training on firearms, first aid and suicide prevention, as required by law -- a deficiency the jail has since admitted and is in the process of correcting. The grand jury met between September and early January and released a report of its work this past week.

"The City Jail is an unsafe working place," Robert E. Feaster, a supervisor at the city's Back River Waste Water Treatment facility and a member of the committee that studied the jail, said in an interview. "The guards are outnumbered terribly. The prisoners were walking around the place like they own the place."

L. Tracy Brown, the only person permitted by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to speak on the jail's behalf, said yesterday that Commissioner Barbara A. Bostick would have no comment on the grand jury's findings or its recommendations.

The majority of a grand jury's work is to review evidence of possible criminal conduct and determine whether there is sufficient cause to bring charges against an individual through an indictment. But a grand jury -- a panel of 23 citizens culled from voter registration rolls -- also has the legal mandate to visit correctional institutions in its area, review citizen complaints about possible criminal wrongdoing and explore areas of community concern.

Panels of the September grand jury looked at the City Jail and state prisons in Baltimore, drug-addicted mothers and their children, social ills affecting juveniles and the city school system.

In the course of its review, the grand jury committee that studied the jail received what it termed "alarming information" about staffing and security at the City Jail. The members of the panel included two correctional officers, one of whom works at the jail.

During three visits to the jail and in "extensive" interviews with correctional officers and inmates, the panel found unstaffed security posts, unattended and opened metal door grilles, leaking sewage and other plumbing problems. The report does not specify the number of security posts in the jail or how many are routinely left unstaffed. The jail refused to comment.

If posts are left unattended, there are no security checks to "prevent the transporting of contraband by inmates" from one area of the jail to another, the report said.

"The Baltimore City Jail is dangerously understaffed and unable to effectively maintain a safe and escape-free environment," the panel concluded.

The committee cited as an example of "dangerously low understaffing" an incident in which one correctional officer was assigned to watch 100 inmates in the men's gymnasium, where the outer door was "unmanned and unsecured." The panel also expressed concern about reports that emergency calls to assist officers in trouble "evoked responses from as few as two officers to quell disturbances involving up to 35 highly agitated inmates."

Mary Hunter, another committee member, said the lack of training for jail guards disturbed her. "They need more training, far more training," Ms. Hunter said flatly.

When the committee asked why security posts were left unstaffed, the panel members said, jail officials blamed it on budget cuts. "They worry more about money than they're worried about lives," Mr. Feaster said.

Among its recommendations, the committee asked that jail funds be redirected "to ensure that all designated posts are manned by correctional staff."

The committee also recommended that more correctional officers be hired at several of the state prison facilities it visited in Baltimore. It said the antiquated Maryland Penitentiary should increase staff by 25 percent and double the number of correctional officers working in the prison's infamous South Wing, which houses the facility's troublesome inmates.

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