Another Harford Jail Death

July 27, 1994

The death of a young woman confined to the Harford County Detention Center this week recalls public attention to a penal facility that is already enwrapped in political controversy.

There is no immediate suggestion that proper procedures were not carefully followed by jail personnel. Niecey D. Aldridge, 24, of Aberdeen died early Sunday after a series of severe asthma attacks since her incarceration three weeks ago, even as her lawyer asked for her medical release.

An ongoing investigation ought to sort out the details in the sudden death. One question will be whether screening and monitoring procedures for asthmatic inmates are adequate, and whether medical attention was appropriate.

Asthma can quickly asphyxiate; attacks are exacerbated by extreme heat and poor air quality conditions. The victim's bronchial dilator medication was withdrawn by jail medical staff because she was found to be pregnant, a common precaution to prevent fetal damage but one that requires closer monitoring of patient reactions.

Beyond the specifics of this incident, the death will no doubt be used by some to criticize management of the Harford detention center under the county sheriff's office. Activity at the jail has been held under a public microscope ever since the furor over the mysterious death of inmate William M. Ford two years ago, a death that polarized the political supporters of the sheriff and those of the county executive.

At issue in this year's election is whether County Executive Eileen Rehrmann was correct in paying a $400,000 settlement to Mr. Ford's family to forestall a civil rights lawsuit, nearly a year before a county grand jury ruled the inmate's death to have been either accidental or a suicide. Equally at issue is whether Sheriff Robert Comes, an elected official, or the county government should control Harford's police force and jail. The county, after all, remains legally liable for his staff's actions.

Ironically, by the time the Harford County Council got through with it, the charter amendment put before voters this November asks only whether the sheriff should retain law enforcement authority, or whether a county police force should be created under the county executive. The question of responsibility for the jail, which originally forced the political showdown between sheriff and executive, will not be decided by the electorate.

Still, activities at the jail will influence voters' perceptions of the sheriff's office, and to what extent voters choose to entrust that office with county law enforcement duties in the future.

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