Lawyers protest heat in city jail

Defenders ask for release of women at bail hearings

`Cruel and unusual punishment'

Center for female inmates lacks air conditioning

August 01, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Amid reports that inmates and employees are becoming ill from the intense heat inside the Women's Detention Center, Baltimore's public defender's office began filing motions this week asking judges to release some of its female clients.

During bail hearings, public defenders have argued that their clients are being subjected to "cruel and unusual punishment" in a facility without air conditioning.

District Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey has scheduled a hearing today to discuss the issue.

"It's so hot it takes your breath away. It almost made me sick," said Elizabeth L. Julian, district public defender. "When you walk in, you instantly start sweating."

The summer's smothering weather has contributed to 31 heat-related deaths in Maryland, including two that were discovered this week. The Central Booking and Intake Facility, where men are held before trial, has air conditioning.

However, inside the women's jail, it is often steamier than outdoors and the temperature sometimes exceeds 100 degrees. The facility has no open windows to ventilate it.

"The building is cooled by a duct system that ventilates it, but in this high degree of heat that duct system does not function appropriately," said LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of the state's Division of Pretrial Detention and Services. "If you're in the building, you would not be able to determine that there is ventilation."

In recent days, two employees have been granted transfers because of the heat, and several people at the detention center were treated for heat exhaustion and respiratory problems, Flanagan said.

Flanagan said installing an air-conditioning system is not "foreseeable" because of the state's tight budget although the building has ventilation problems.

The public defender's office is not seeking the release of the 580 women who are awaiting trial. Rather, defense attorneys are attending bail review hearings of recently arrested women, and arguing to a judge that assigning them to the jail is "inhumane."

The public defenders are asking that the women be released on their own recognizance without bail. None of the 34 women who had bail hearings Monday and yesterday was released because of the conditions at the jail, said assistant public defender Dennis Laye.

Inmates who have medical conditions that could be aggravated by heat were assigned to the jail's hospital unit, which is air conditioned, Laye said.

Flanagan said he has ordered that inmates be given as much ice and water as they want. He also said his department has spent $15,000 on fans this year to help cool the city's jails.

He said all the jails have problems with the heat and humidity during heat waves, but the women's jail experiences the worst conditions.

Julian, of the public defender's office, wrote to District Court Administrative Judge Keith E. Mathews about the issue, saying the conditions at the detention center violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment because they create a "serious risk of substantial harm to the health of the inmates."

"No one should be punished because of their lack of financial resources to make bail," Julian wrote. "This environment is especially egregious for these women who are being detained in a pretrial status and are presumed to be innocent."

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