Drug policy lies behind inmates' deaths

August 21, 1999|By Gregory Kane

MAYORAL candidate Carl Stokes stood in front of the city's central booking facility Thursday afternoon, pleading for those who seldom have anyone speak out for them: jail and prison inmates.

Stokes wanted to know exactly why Patricia Sharon Gardner died Aug. 7 in one of the cells of his city's central booking facility. He found out about Gardner's death at an East Baltimore rally last week, when a woman pulled him aside and asked for his help.

"She told me Gardner and two other women she knew had died at central booking in the last three months," Stokes told the assembled media folks. The woman then asked Stokes to take a walk around the block with her.

"We didn't know where we were going," said Kelley Ray, spokeswoman for the Stokes campaign. "We ended up at Gardner's funeral."

The woman had taken them to Evans Temple Memorial Church of God. Within a few moments, Stokes had gone from mayoral candidate attending a rally to a mourner at Gardner's funeral. At times during Thursday's news conference, he held up the folded piece of paper with Gardner's picture on the front, the four-page "homegoing" literature traditionally handed out at funerals.

At the funeral, Stokes soon found himself talking to Gardner's son, who said he learned his mother had been screaming for help, crying out, shouting just before she died.

Stokes also talked to the family of Bernadette Johnson, who said she died in the central booking center on June 19. Both women, Stokes said, may have been drug addicts. Corrections officials confirmed that Gardner and Johnson were in jail on drug charges. Stokes used the news conference to ask Gov. Parris Glendening to investigate the deaths of Gardner and Johnson.

LaMont Flanagan, the commissioner for the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services, issued a news release within hours of Stokes' news conference. Flanagan provided scant information on the deaths of Gardner and Johnson, saying only that they died of "natural causes." Neither woman died in central booking, Flanagan said, adding that no one has died in central booking this year. Of 21,500 detention center inmates, Flanagan said, nine have died this year. Johnson died at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Gardner died at the Women's Detention Center, a building separate from central booking.

"A doctor on the scene examined her," Barbara Cooper, a division spokeswoman, said of Gardner's death, "and found no evidence of foul play."

But Stokes never claimed foul play was involved. He suggested that medical staff with the division might need better training and repeated his call for drug treatment on demand.

"We need to bust the drug dealers," Stokes said. "We need to take them down and bury them. But there are thousands of people out here who are sick."

Stokes and Flanagan -- who kept missing each other in a game of phone tag before the news conference -- may unknowingly be on the same page. Flanagan says that in Baltimore, correctional facilities have become de facto health care agencies.

"There's an array of illnesses that permeate the justice system," Flanagan said. Inmates come in with kidney ailments, heart problems, HIV infections, venereal disease and malnutrition -- all drug-related.

"The venereal disease was so high that the Center for Disease Control requested they use our facility to do serum surveys," Flanagan continued. A dialysis unit at the Maryland State Penitentiary serves inmates with kidney problems. Division staff now administer anti-HIV drugs to inmates.

"It's the business of corrections to hold in custody those accused or convicted of violating the law," Flanagan noted. "Corrections is being asked to assume the duties of other agencies in society. We're everything to everybody. That's not what corrections was created for."

Stokes recalled how two addicts arrested in a Northwest Baltimore drug raid begged to be given drug treatment rather than be sent to jail. The city accommodated them, as it did 13 other addicts who called in the next day.

"I want those who are obviously addicted in good care," Stokes said, "not in central booking where they are held two, three, maybe four days." Drug dealers, Stokes noted, can usually make bail in a couple of hours because they have money. The addicts, the sick ones, languish in jail, straining the budgets of commissioners like Flanagan.

This isn't a public health crisis. It's a public health nightmare. Our nation's "lock 'em up' policy for drug addicts treats the problem as neither. If we're looking for the culprits in the deaths of Patricia Gardner and Bernadette Johnson, we need look no further than ourselves and our baffling belief that we should lock up sick people instead of hospitalizing them.

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