Report on city jails woven in `fiction,' says prison official

Human Rights Watch trying to advance own cause, Flanagan says

November 17, 1999|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

LaMont W. Flanagan doesn't dispute that the jail he runs in Baltimore is grim. But he bristles when it is portrayed as an inhumane, unsanitary and unsafe place to hold youths awaiting trial for serious crimes.

The conditions at the Baltimore City Detention Center are not, he insists, "appalling" -- the descriptive term that the New York-based group, Human Rights Watch, uses often in a recent report about juveniles held in adult jails in Maryland.

"It is antiquated," Flanagan said, noting that parts of the jail were built in 1802. "It's all brick, mortar and steel. Just the bare bones. But it is sanitary, it is humane and the juveniles here are treated as human beings."

The Human Rights Watch report, released Nov. 4, said youths in the jail "endure dimly lit, dreary cells infested with vermin and face daily risks to their personal safety." It concluded that Maryland's adult jails are inappropriate places for children ages 14 to 17.

Maryland is among 40 states that have passed laws this decade making it easier for youths to be tried as adults. Flanagan said he believes that the human rights group exaggerated conditions to advance a larger cause: that juveniles do not belong in adult jails.

"The report was weaved in fiction and exaggeration and bordered on being a fairy tale," Flanagan said, maintaining that conditions are nowhere near as bleak and dangerous as portrayed by Human Rights Watch.

Flanagan is the commissioner of the Division of Pretrial Detention Services at the jail.

In response to a request by The Sun, Flanagan allowed a reporter and photographer to tour the jail yesterday to get a glimpse of what life behind bars is like for the 124 youths now held at the state-run Baltimore City Detention Center.

Access was delayed more than a week and limited, and the review took place under the close control of jail officials. Noting privacy laws and concerns about lawsuits, state officials would not allow youths to be interviewed.

In the jail's "L" Section, where the general population of male juveniles is housed, the youths, by 8 a.m., had already been awake for some time. They had breakfast between 5: 30 and 6, then showered, dressed and got ready for classes at 8: 30.

The young men were then herded in small groups into a side room adjacent to the cell block where they stripped to their underwear as guards searched for weapons, a daily ritual.

After the search, they lined up in a hall corridor, each clad in either green camouflage pants and bulky green shirt or a green jumpsuit. The group was led in prayer by one of their number before marching off to classrooms in trailers in an outdoor courtyard.

Their faces betray little sense of the crimes they are accused of committing.

"Let me tell you something, these are not children," said Flanagan. "These are young men who happen to be of juvenile age. They have had life experiences that a large majority of adults have not had."

Indeed, jail records show that 95 of the youths incarcerated there yesterday -- well over half -- were charged with such serious crimes as murder, attempted murder, rape, assault, kidnapping and armed robbery.

The cramped, 5-by-7-foot cells that house them are Spartan and grim. Each has a stainless steel sink and toilet, double bunks with thin mattresses, a 3-foot-long light at the back of the cell and little else.

Normally, one youth is assigned to each cell, but they were double bunking yesterday because one side of the cell block was being painted, officials said. Although the Human Rights Watch report described the cells as dimly lit with little natural lighting, a set of windows opposite them let sunlight stream through yesterday.

A good part of adolescents' day is spent at school.

When Human Rights Watch investigators visited between July 1998 and May 1999, school was abbreviated because of understaffing, just three hours a day split into morning and afternoon shifts, which was criticized as inadequate.

But about two weeks ago, the Baltimore school system added enough teachers to allow a full academic schedule from 8: 30 a.m. to 2 p.m., with an hour after that for supervised recreation, said Dawn J. Downing, principal of the Baltimore City Detention Center School.

Yesterday, the youths were studying everything from geometry to computer science in the courtyard trailers.

With more individual attention in small classes of 12 to 17 students, Downing said, many of the young inmates are having success in the classroom for the first time in their lives. "They have to come to school here," she noted. "Our attendance is not a problem."

Flanagan said groups of 10 to 15 youths at a time are allowed out of their cells in the late afternoon or evenings to use telephones, watch television or play video games in a common room off each set of cells. They also get time for recreation in the detention center's gym or outdoor basketball court.

Alarmed by the Human Rights Watch report's findings, area advocacy groups are pressing for a grand jury investigation that they hope will ferret out the truth about conditions for juveniles at the jail. They have also asked to be allowed in to see jail conditions for themselves.

They have received no response to either request, said Jonathan Smith of Public Justice Center in Baltimore. Ignoring the problems will simply invite a lawsuit or intervention by the U.S. Justice Department, he said.

"These flat-out denials [of problems] have been extremely disappointing," Smith said. "Nobody's going to believe there's nothing wrong at the jail. We're not going away."

Haven Kodeck, a deputy in Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy's office, said that Jessamy is still reviewing the Human Rights Watch Report, but noted that city grand juries make regular inspection tours of the jail each year.

Pub Date: 11/17/99

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