Prisoner shifting criticized

July 02, 1994|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

Persistent crowding at the Baltimore City Detention Center has led officials to use police district lockups to hold prisoners almost every night -- a practice a lawyer for the inmates says violates a federal court order.

Police say the extra prisoners have not caused problems in the districts, but can produce a squeeze on holiday weekends -- such as this one -- when large numbers of arrests are made and courts are closed.

"This weekend could be bad," said Sgt. John Herndon of the Southern District, one of five districts where extra prisoners are taken. "It's going to be warm, it's not going to rain, and it's a big celebration weekend. . . . Hopefully, we'll have some room come Monday."

A 1993 federal court order, the result of an attempt by inmates to reduce crowding at what used to be called City Jail, allows officials to use six places to hold overflow inmates in "emergencies."

The police districts are to be the last resort. Commissioner LaMont W. Flanagan, who heads the detention center, has used them daily in the past two months as the center's average daily population climbed to about 3,350 in June. The detention center is meant to house about 2,930.

An average of 100 prisoners have been sleeping at police districts each night, Mr. Flanagan said, with another 320 sleeping in gymnasiums and in other makeshift arrangements.

Annapolis attorney Frank Dunbaugh, who represents the inmates, has filed a motion asking a federal judge to prevent Mr. Flanagan from using the "emergency" arrangements -- especially the police districts -- on a routine basis. At issue is the definition of "emergency" housing and what to do during constant crowding.

Reasons for the squeeze include a backlogged court system, which lengthens the time prisoners must await trial in the detention center, and a growing number of arrests. As of yesterday, the detention center also had 246 inmates from the state prison system because those facilities, too, are crowded.

In addition, fewer prisoners have been able to make bail.

A new central booking facility being built next to the detention center should help ease crowding substantially, at least for the short term. The 811-bed building also will provide for centralized processing of newly arrested prisoners, meaning police won't have to return to their own districts for booking.

That building, however, won't be ready for about a year.

Under the court order, inmates may be housed in contingency areas only for sleeping at night and must return to the detention center in the morning. They spend the next day in large holding areas known as "bullpens," where inmates are supposed to stay only while waiting to be processed. But at times several hundred prisoners spend the whole day in the receiving area, Mr. Flanagan said.

He said transporting the prisoners back and forth to the districts has not presented a security risk.

Mr. Dunbaugh said the overflow means that inmates regularly are housed in inadequate facilities. He said Mr. Flanagan is using the police districts and other contingency space rather than taking steps to bring down the jail population.

Mr. Flanagan "has made contingency housing into permanent housing," Mr. Dunbaugh said.

Mr. Flanagan countered that no prisoner has had to spend more than one night in a police district while under the detention center's jurisdiction. He also said that detention center staff are assigned to oversee prisoners in the districts instead of police.

"Certainly, within any criminal justice system, overpopulation is an emergency," Mr. Flanagan said. "You certainly can't have people let go."

The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services took over the former jail on East Eager Street three years ago.

Two federal court masters designated to monitor the jail's conditions in 1992 lauded the state for "significant" improvements in security and conditions of confinement. The average daily jail population has increased steadily, however.

Mr. Dunbaugh's motion suggests that officials should rely more heavily on home detention, pretrial release and alternative programs for inmates with minor charges to reduce crowding.

Mr. Flanagan argues that those alternatives have been considered, and that less restrictive settings are inappropriate for many inmates.

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