State officials have told the Justice Department that they stand by practices at Maryland's Supermax prison, despite a federal investigation that concluded the prison violates the civil rights of inmates.
The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services was responding to a May 1 letter from Deval L. Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil rights, who charged that the investigation found Supermax was operating unconstitutionally. Patrick said that if the state did not respond within 49 days, it could be sued for the alleged violations, which included "grossly deficient" mental health services and inadequate access to exercise and medical care.
In a reply, dated Wednesday and released yesterday, state Assistant Attorney General Stuart M. Nathan wrote that Patrick's letter "reflects your Division's philosophical opposition to 'super maximum' facilities without regard to constitutional criteria. Without question, an abiding concern for civil rights has historically animated the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services."
The federal government still could sue the state if it finds the response unacceptable. In his letter, Nathan invited Patrick to contact him for further discussion of the issues.
The super-maximum security prison -- formally known as the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center -- opened in 1989 to hold up to 288 of the state's most difficult inmates in single, 65-square-foot cells around the clock. As envisioned, the prison was to have held those inmates only until they demonstrated that they could behave.
But three consultants who visited the prison last year for the Justice Department found that instead of being transferred out of the prison based on behavior, some Supermax inmates were caught in a "Catch-22 situation," which led some to be held indefinitely even when they had obeyed prison rules for years.
One of the consultants, a New Mexico physician, also wrote that his investigation had been impeded by the attitude of state officials, who insisted on sitting in on the interviews he did.
Nathan denied that, writing to Patrick that "as you should recognize, it was your staff's failure to provide us with any meaningful information that led us to question the purpose and scope of your investigation."
He also wrote that the federal government had no jurisdiction under the law to dictate the way a state manages its prisons, without a showing of "egregious constitutional violations."
He noted that the Justice Department consultants, while finding problems, also reported finding no evidence that inmates were abused, and that they praised some aspects of the prison's operation.
And for those areas in which the consultants criticized the facility, Nathan said the prison was still conforming to the Constitution. For example, he wrote that it was impossible for each prisoner to get time outdoors five days a week because their "violent nature" made it too dangerous to allow inmates to exercise together. But Nathan did say that the state was reviewing the Justice Department's recommendations to assess whether any changes should be made.
Nathan's letter requested "detailed information regarding all financial, technical or other assistance that you will be making available to the state of Maryland," citing a provision of civil-rights law that calls for the Justice Department to offer help to improve prison conditions.