Central Booking is 35 percent over capacity

Security issues considered as 1,209 inmates are held in facility designed for 895

September 21, 2001|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Central Booking and Intake Center in Baltimore is holding about 300 more inmates than it is designed for, officials said yesterday, raising concerns about possible violence.

The facility, which has a capacity of 895 inmates, was housing 1,209 yesterday. Most of the extra prisoners are sleeping on the floor in "boats," plastic shells that can hold bedding.

Jail officials and prison advocates worry that the extra inmates could lead to logistical problems and violence among inmates.

At this time last year, the jail had extra space.

The booking facility is the first stop for people arrested in the city.

The jail's population has been increasing since late spring. On May 23, there were 848 inmates; the number climbed to 1,171 on Sept. 14.

"The state is caught in the middle," said Leonard A. Sipes Jr., director of public information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Arrests have increased from 6,865 in April to 8,633 in August - the highest number for Central Booking in the last four years, according to Sipes.

In June, LaMont W. Flanagan, the state commissioner of Pretrial Detention and Services who oversees Central Booking, warned that increasing arrests and a sluggish judicial system were putting too many prisoners in the facility.

Sipes reiterated those points yesterday, and said there were many inmates with low bail - $500 or less - who couldn't afford to get out and were clogging the facility.

Some measures have been taken to relieve overcrowding, such as installing a court in Central Booking. And prison officials are working with judicial and police officials to find a solution. Sipes would not elaborate on the plans.

A city police spokesman said yesterday that the department was not aware of a problem.

District Court Administrative Judge Keith Mathews said, "I don't think it's the District Court that's contributing to overflow."

He said defendants seen in District Court are tried within 30 days.

Though there have not been any outbreaks of violence or major logistical problems because of the increased numbers of inmates, "we'd rather have them in cells; it's more secure," Sipes said.

Inmate numbers will often rise around major holidays, especially Labor Day, when judges tend to go on vacation, said Frank M. Dunbaugh, a lawyer who represented inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center during the 1990s in an overcrowding suit against the state.

Prisons throughout the country are overcrowded, especially in areas where judges are forced to hand out mandatory sentences, according to Al Gerhardstein, president of the Prison Reform Advocacy Center in Cincinnati.

"The key to safety in a detention facility is ... keeping the real bad guys away from the victims," he said. "If you are so stuffed that you cannot provide continuity of programs and keep people apart, then you're going to have a prescription for real disaster."

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