A federal judge yesterday dressed down state prison officials for regular violations of population limits at the overcrowded Baltimore City Detention Center -- then declined to punish them for doing so.
Saying the true measure of a society is how it treats its "powerless," Judge J. Frederick Motz asked officials why they should not be found in contempt for violating a 2-year-old court-enforced agreement, as an attorney for jail inmates had requested. "You all are really having me preside over the evisceration of this decree," he said. "There had to be good reason for those figures to be arrived at and it's been continuously violated."
But after hours of testimony from officials who said they could not control increasing arrests, the judge said sanctions would serve no purpose. Instead, he ordered reports over the next few months to hold the state to its goal of complying with the agreement by summer's end.
The 1993 consent decree, the product of two decades of litigation over conditions at the former City Jail, says that no more than 2,930 inmates can be kept at the jail except in an emergency. Yesterday, the population stood at about 3,400.
Last week prison officials had said they would try to reduce the population in stages, reaching the court-ordered limit by June 1.
But state lawyers reversed their position yesterday, arguing that they could not remedy the problems by that date. "You can't get blood from a turnip," said Assistant Attorney General Evelyn Cannon.
Jail officials yesterday stopped accepting federal prisoners, who are routinely detained there under a contractual agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service. About 90 federal prisoners already at the jail will remain there for the time being.
U.S. Marshal Scott Sewell said he would have to find space at several county jails that also have agreements with the government, and that he was considering legal action to force the jail to honor its contract. There is no federal detention center for pretrial prisoners in Maryland.
Frank M. Dunbaugh, the inmates' lawyer, said the state is using stopgap measures instead of looking at long-term solutions for the rising population behind bars. "We keep hearing this is an impossibility of performance," he said. "I don't think they can prove that fact."
Prison officials spent hours trying to do so. Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said he could not control the flow of inmates left at his doors by police, court commissioners and judges.
Prisoners sent to the 19th-century jail spend an average of 47 days there -- and in the end, half are set free after being found not guilty or having their cases dropped or tabled.
Mr. Robinson said he felt he could meet the prisoner limit by September by opening the new 811-bed Central Booking Facility in stages over the summer, completing a 400-bed dormitory nearby originally intended for sentenced inmates and transferring prisoners from the Maryland Penitentiary to an expanded prison in Jessup.