Hundreds of juveniles awaiting trial in Maryland are locked each day in bleak adult jails like the Baltimore City Detention Center where they endure rampant violence and appalling conditions, a human rights group says.
In a report released today, the New York-based Human Rights Watch also said some guards at the Baltimore facility condone and organize fights between youths who have scores to settle. It said that jailed youths lack adequate food, education and mental health services.
LaMont Flanagan, the state official who oversees the city detention center, said the report gives a "highly exaggerated picture" of conditions there, and he flatly denied that any guards were allowing youths to fight.
"We strongly disagree with the report stating that violence is severe, the place is unsafe and that it's unfit for human habitation," Flanagan said. "We have passed every constitutional standard" required for jail facilities.
Human Rights Watch said Maryland is not the only state that holds youths in adult jails while they await trial. Maryland is among 40 states that have passed laws this decade making it easier for youths ages 14 to 17 to be tried as adults, the group said.
In its report, Human Rights Watch called on Maryland to stop confining youths awaiting trial in adult facilities under conditions that it said violate state, federal and international laws.
"Maryland's jails are inappropriate places for youth, even for those accused of committing very serious crimes," the report said. "This conclusion is particularly compelling with regard to the Baltimore City Detention Center, where children endure dimly lit, dreary cells infested with vermin and face daily risks to their personal safety."
Mark Soler, president of the Youth Law Center in Washington, said he was shocked by the conditions he saw when he toured the Baltimore facility in May with the Human Rights Watch delegation.
He said conditions were among the worst he has seen in 20 years of visiting jails around the country. "The level of violence is scary," he said. "[Incarcerated juveniles] call it a dungeon, and it is like a dungeon. It's like something out of Dickens."
The human rights group's 169-page report -- "No Minor Matter: Children in Maryland's Jails" -- examined five jails from July 1998 to May 1999. They included the Baltimore facility and county-run detention centers in Frederick, Montgomery, Prince Georges and Washington counties.
About 300 juveniles -- most charged with serious crimes -- are held in adult prisons in Maryland on any given day, the report says. Some are there only a few days, but many remain for six months or longer.
The report's author, Michael Bochenek, said Human Rights Watch decided to review detention facilities in Maryland based on troubling reports it had received from area advocacy groups. He is a lawyer for the children's rights division of Human Rights Watch.
Among the group's findings:
Children commingled with adults to some degree in all of the detention centers that were visited, "in clear violation of international law." Contact between adults and juveniles was a particular problem at smaller county jails.
Juveniles at all the facilities reported that they had been subjected to harassment and violence from other detainees, and "violence is particularly severe in the Baltimore City Detention center."
Education provided to youths is seriously deficient at the detention centers, and no education program is even offered at the Prince Georges County facility. Youths also complained that they did not get enough to eat.
Punishment for violating rules is arbitrary and often excessive. In Baltimore, entire sections were locked down after an escape or fight and youths were kept confined to their cells, in some cases for weeks.
Given Maryland's progressive reputation, Bochenek said he was surprised by what he found. "To have these findings in Maryland is kind of shocking," he said. "I think people don't really realize there are these kinds of things happening in the state of Maryland."
Much of the report focused on the Baltimore detention center, which was described as a "decaying facility nearly 200 years old where [youths] endure appalling conditions of confinement."
Soler said most of the juveniles held in the city detention center are African-American and suggested race plays a role in the dismal conditions. "This is an absolutely terrible place," he said. "If it was 150 white kids locked up in there, there would be parents tearing down the walls to get their kids out."
The decaying state of the Baltimore detention center contributes to violence, according to Human Rights Watch. It said detainees fashion "shanks" -- homemade weapons -- from pieces of metal pried from air vents or old light fixtures.
The Human Rights Watch report also said that some guards occasionally allowed juveniles to fight each other. Bochenek said several youths interviewed separately, at different times, talked about the practice.