Crowded jail is a caldron of stress

July 24, 1994|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

The inmate leans against the steel bars surrounding the "cage" in the receiving area at the Baltimore City Detention Center and complains of pains from heroin withdrawal. He asks to go to the facility's hospital and is denied.

"I can't move, man," the inmate says. "I'm withdrawing real bad, man." He lifts his denim shirt, rubs his stomach and drops to his knees outside the cage.

It is 7:30 a.m. on a recent Tuesday -- a "Super Tuesday," as correctional officers at the Detention Center's receiving area call it. It's the day when an already crowded prison fills well past its capacity.

On Tuesdays, tensions rise in the receiving area of the East Baltimore jail as it is flooded with inmates who are transferred there from district police stations and courts to be placed among inmates already serving time.

"It's when we know that anything will happen," says Mallory Bland, a former Marine and an officer at the prison for five years. "No one is surprised when it does."

The Detention Center was meant to house slightly fewer than 3,000 prisoners, but the daily average is more than 3,100, officials said. And on any given day, as many as a quarter of the inmates are in the receiving area, where new inmates are strip-searched, showered and processed into the jail.

On Tuesdays -- the busiest day at the Detention Center -- the population increases to between 3,200 and 3,300 inmates.

The eight officers assigned to the receiving section are perhaps the busiest in the jail; they must watch regular inmates and process new ones. And there is little time for breaks, levity or a feeling of comfort. Those who work in the area say overcrowding triggers stress and tension -- not only among the inmates, but toward the officers, who are unarmed while on duty.

On this Tuesday, about 340 inmates are housed in the four sections of cells at the receiving area, and at least 50 "sleep-overs," inmates who slept in common areas the night before because the jail ran out of beds.

Activity is nonstop in the narrow halls of the jail, and the voices of inmates and officers echo off the cinder-block walls. The receiving area is not a place for the meek, says one officer, who labels it "a zoo."

As the ailing inmate lies on the floor and asks for help, an officer tells him that drug withdrawal symptoms do not require an immediate trip to the medical center.

This does not sit well with the man. He objects loudly and profanely, threatening to sue the jail and the state. He says he'll throw up all over the hall.

"Something could be wrong, and you all not going to do nothing," he says.

The inmate slips a hand under the elastic waistband of his boxer shorts and says his swollen stomach is almost twice its normal size. His black Los Angeles Raiders cap flops over his eyes.

Officer Robert James, who has worked at the jail for 18 years, glares at the man from his "office" -- a barred cage -- and yells at him to move. But the man refuses, closing his eyes and moaning, his head against a faded pink wall with "KEEP OFF THE WALL" stenciled in bold, black letters.

Meanwhile, unshackled prisoners walk in the hallway, and inmates watch from three large holding cells called "bullpens" as they wait to be processed. There is a clanging as inmates in "three-piece suits" -- handcuffs chained at the waist and leg irons -- move to be transported to court.

Above the commotion, Mr. James' voice booms: "I said move out of there."

"Man, I have to go to the hospital," the inmate says. "I'm having problems."

Mr. James slowly lifts his 6-foot-6, 310-pound frame from a chair and approaches the cage bars.

"If you were on the street you'd walk . . . to the dope man," he yells, as other officers attempt to prop up the man. "You walked . . . over here, didn't you? Now get up and go to the bullpen."

Slowly, the inmate rises and staggers to a bullpen where 30 other inmates are being held and lies on the floor. Inmates walk over him as if he weren't there; one asks if he has a cigarette and checks his pockets.

Mr. James returns to the cage and resumes processing. A sign behind his desk reads: "If they stab you in the back, it's because they're not in front of you."

This "Super Tuesday" is one of the busier Tuesdays, and Mr. James is in a foul mood. He has processed about 30 inmates, has 11 others waiting to be processed and has been told that more are on the way.

Though inmates have come from other police district jails or court house cells, officers at receiving routinely find contraband on them -- metal shanks, cigarettes and pens.

"We've already got more than we can handle," Mr. James says.

"There's always a lot more money for police officers, but they need to hire more correctional officers, too," he says. "See, each new officer locks up five more people, and they put that person in here where it's already crowded, and they don't hire correctional officers to handle the new officers' arrests."

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