City booking center criticized as 'gulag' Detainees wait days for bail hearings, lawyer tells court

June 07, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Controversy over the state's new Central Booking and Intake Center spilled into court yesterday, as an attorney representing prisoners asked to be let into what he termed "a gulag" to investigate allegations that prisoners are held for hours even after making bail.

Baltimore Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell scheduled a meeting with lawyers today to draw up an order that could force prison officials to follow the law while a suit over the booking center proceeds, saying that "there is a concern of the court as to whether this facility is safeguarding the rights of those entrusted to its care."

Attorneys representing the state, which built and runs the $56 million high-tech building, insisted they had reduced waits at the facility and brought the average processing time down to 10 hours.

Maryland law requires that anyone arrested receive a bail hearing before a court commissioner without "unreasonable delay," and in any event within 24 hours. But as of April, prisoners complained -- and state officials acknowledged -- that some were waiting much longer, even when charged with minor offenses. And even after bails were posted, some prisoners waited hours more to be released.

Eight of the city's nine police districts use the 6-month-old building at East Madison Street and Fallsway to process prisoners instead of holding them at districtlockups. The goal of the booking center is to speed up the criminal justice system in Baltimore with the use of automation, freeing police officers to spend more time on patrol.

Yesterday's allegations came even as the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services issued a glowing press release about the facility, saying it "meets the majority of objectives -- over 10,000 offenders booked." The release stated that the time to process offenders and "prepare them to see" commissioners was 2 1/2 hours -- a statement at odds with what attorneys for the state told the court yesterday.

But Victor White, a 36-year-old city employee who was released from custody Tuesday after being held on a charge of violating probation, said he was not set free until a day after his bail had been posted. He appeared in court yesterday, prepared to testify that many prisoners still wait days to see a commissioner.

In an interview, he described being packed in a cell with five other men, who took turns lying or sitting down because there wasn't enough room. A sign said the cell was built for one person, White said.

"This was like a nightmare," he said. "Nothing's changed. Two guys in there were in the cell before I got there. They were on their third day and had not seen a commissioner."

Attorney Alan P. Zukerberg lost a bid to be given immediate access to the facility to examine records and find out how long people are waiting to see commissioners. "I am hearing that they are incommunicado in that facility," Zukerberg said in court. "The story I am hearing is that there are missing-persons reports being filed by people whose loved ones are in the facility."

Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Nathan, who represents the department, offered Zukerberg a tour of the building but refused to allow him to look at records of prisoners he does not represent, citing state and federal privacy laws.

Zukerberg on Wednesday filed a class-action lawsuit against the state on behalf of Central Booking inmates. Named as a plaintiff was Deborah Michelle Barnes, 25, who was arrested on a drunken driving charge in the early hours of April 7.

Barnes said yesterday that she spent more than two days in the booking center before seeing a commissioner, who released her on her own recognizance. Then she waited five more hours before officials finally let her out.

In the suit, she said she was placed in a small cell with five other women, and that the cell was "deplorable and repulsive," stinking of urine, with trash strewn about. Barnes said that at one point, a man who appeared to be a prisoner stood outside her cell watching the women inside use the bathroom and making lewd remarks to them.

Assistant Attorney General Andrew Baida acknowledged that there had been problems at the center when Barnes was incarcerated there, but said that officials had put improvements in place to reduce delays. He said cells are cleaned once a day and dismissed White's experience as "an aberration," if true.

Pub Date: 6/07/96

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