4 Md. prisons freed from consent decrees A 1995 act of Congress led to termination after more than decade

March 18, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

After more than a decade under federal court supervision, four of Maryland's oldest prisons have been freed from consent decrees governing their populations and conditions, prompting concern from inmate advocates yesterday.

The termination of the decrees is part of a national pattern after passage in Congress of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, which restricts the extent to which federal courts can intervene in the management of state prisons.

The act provides for "immediate" termination of consent decrees considered to be overly broad.

Since January, four of the five state-run correctional facilities under supervision have been freed of consent decrees by federal judges.

The four are Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore, Maryland Correctional Institution -- Hagerstown (MCIH), Maryland House of Correction in Jessup and Maryland Correctional Training Center (MCTC) near Hagerstown.

Leonard A. Sipes Jr., spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said yesterday the decisions by U.S. District Judges William M. Nickerson and Benson E. Legg mean the state is running the prisons well.

"If there were violations of the Constitution, the judge would not have lifted the consent decrees," he said. "All four institutions were clearly operated constitutionally."

But Margaret Winter, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, who represents inmates at the House of Correction and MCIH, said her case will likely end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, where she expects the Prison Litigation Reform Act to be challenged.

Winter asked Nickerson to reconsider on grounds that he did not hold an evidentiary hearing to determine conditions at the prisons, particularly in health care. She said she had sent him numerous examples of inmates whose treatment for serious health problems had been substandard.

"If we do get such a hearing, we would put on a major hearing to show that the health care does not meet constitutional standards," Winter said. "If this consent decree is really thrown out and we don't get an evidentiary hearing on the medical [issues], I think we have to strongly consider whether a new suit should be brought."

The consent decree governing the House of Correction and MCIH covered living conditions at the prisons, including crowding, noise levels, health care, program activities and access to courts.

The agreement governing the penitentiary's operation, signed in 1985, was more narrow, capping the prison's population and abolishing double-celling.

After that decree was signed, the 19th-century penitentiary changed markedly. The infamous South Wing, dubbed "the innermost circle of hell" by a former state attorney general, was demolished. In its place was built the Metropolitan Transition Services Center, which teaches job skills to inmates close to release.

Since early 1996, virtually all of the penitentiary's maximum-security inmates have been transferred to the more modern House of Correction Annex in Jessup.

Joseph Tetrault, the attorney who represents penitentiary inmates, said last night a decision had not been made whether to appeal the decision.

MCTC's 1982 decree primarily addressed programs and education for inmates, said W. Michel Pierson, an attorney for those prisoners. Pierson said he was not planning an appeal.

The Baltimore City Detention Center, under state control since 1991, is governed by a 1993 consent decree that says that no more than 2,930 inmates can be kept there except in an emergency.

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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