Judge scolds jail officials over heat

Female inmates, workers becoming ill because of lack of air conditioning

August 02, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Calling the heat in the city's Women's Detention Center "sickening," Baltimore District Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey excoriated jail officials at a hearing last night and demanded to know the health status of all its inmates to determine whether temperatures at the facility would aggravate any medical conditions.

"I am extremely concerned about the health of the people confined in that setting," Cooksey said of the 576 held at the jail that is overseen by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

She was responding to a motion filed by the public defender's office saying the hot conditions violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The judge toured the Women's Detention Center at 301 E. Eager St. this week after hearing reports that inmates and employees were becoming ill from the heat. Temperatures, according to the public defender's office, have been as high as 117 degrees inside the building, which lacks air conditioning.

Assistant Maryland Attorney General Glenn T. Marrow, who is representing the state agency, told the judge that the jail may be hot, but it is not violating anyone's rights.

"Simply because prison conditions are harsh or oppressive does not mean they are unconstitutional," Marrow said.

The public defender's office began filing motions this week at bail review hearings asking judges to release some of its female clients, saying the poorly ventilated jail conditions are "inhumane."

The neighboring Central Booking and Intake Facility, where men are held before trial, has air conditioning.

In recent days, two employees at the women's jail have been granted transfers because of the heat, and several prisoners were treated for heat exhaustion and respiratory problems, said LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of the state's Division of Pretrial Detention and Services.

Medical officials at the jail have been treating about 20 detainees a day for heat-related rashes and respiratory conditions, he said.

The region's long heat wave has contributed to 31 deaths in Maryland, none of them at the jail. But a 27-year-old prisoner was hospitalized yesterday after being found unconscious and without a pulse. She was revived and placed on life support.

Officials said the woman, who was not named, had a heart condition and it was not known yesterday if heat was a factor. The woman, who was arrested at 4 a.m. yesterday on a robbery charge, was in critical condition last night at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

At bail review hearings this week, Cooksey decided that instead of releasing without bail the 14 women who came before her, she would order them evaluated.

If a doctor determined they should not be in the extreme heat, Cooksey said, she would find another suitable place to hold the women until trial.

But last night, Marrow could not tell Cooksey what happened to the 14 women when she asked. He said he did not know where they are, or if they had been evaluated.

Cooksey called his lack of knowledge "appalling."

"I am at a loss to address the failure of the Division of Pretrial Services and Detention," Cooksey said. "I would like the information that would allow me to see the needs of the defendants."

She demanded the information from him by 10 a.m. today.

Before the hearing, Marrow filed a document explaining strategies to offer relief from the heat.

It says the four-story building is at least 30 years old and has "inherent ventilation problems."

It also says the department is taking "all reasonable steps to combat the heat problems," including giving inmates as much ice and water as they want. The document also says the jail is being cooled with fans.

But Cooksey called the document "vague."

She told Marrow to advise the jail's management to devise a plan to alleviate the heat.

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