The cruel state of women's jail


August 10, 2002

The conditions in the Baltimore City Detention Center for Women are horrible ("Lawyers protest heat in city jail," Aug. 1).

When you are first arrested, you are processed at the Central Booking and Intake Facility. You are thrown into a holding cell (or bullpen). These cells, which are marked "single cell," have as many as 15 women in one cell.

This bullpen is where you sit, lie or stand for many grueling hours - waiting. All of your possessions are taken. It can be extremely cold. Your shoes may be taken if it is deemed unsafe for you to have them, and as cold as it is in the winter, they take your coat.

These bullpens are unsanitary and disgusting. Many women are crowded into a tiny cell. Sometimes there is no running water. And prisoners are not given soap or any hygiene materials.

Many of the women are put into the bullpens sick from tuberculosis (TB), HIV/AIDS, hepatitis or drug withdrawal symptoms. They are coughing, vomiting and have diarrhea, and have nothing to clean themselves with.

I contracted TB in a holding cell from a woman who had active (contagious) TB. At the time, I did not know that her coughing and sweating could be symptoms of TB.

But even now there wouldn't be anything I could do about it. Prisoners spend six hours to 24 hours in these cells, with no fresh air and inadequate ventilation. So they breathe air that is likely filled with airborne contagions. Medical care is unheard of at this point, unless it is a dire emergency.

And there are so many roaches and spiders that you are afraid to close your eyes even for a minute.

You have now gone through hours and hours of frustration. You are at your wits' end. Now you are praying to go to the main jail (the Baltimore City Detention Center for Women), where you can get a shower and something to eat.

After being transported to the jail, I was so happy to finally get a shower for the first time after many hours of waiting that I had dismissed how utterly dirty the showers were.

Thirty or more women use the showers twice a day, if not more often. We try to clean them with the cleaning supplies we are given, but without industrial supplies it doesn't make a difference. We have tried to scrub and brush the showers clean but have not put a dent in the layers of scum.

If these showers were checked, I bet the bacteria count would be off the charts. After taking a shower we itch for a long time. It feels like something is crawling on you.

During the summer it is so hot in here that the concrete walls sweat along with us. The punishing heat is beyond belief.

And in the winter it is extremely cold. Sometimes it is so cold that I won't get off my bunk except for meals and I can see my breath in the air. And the toilets have a thin layer of ice in the winter.

I cannot explain how bad the meals are. In the 11 months I have been here I have not had a hot meal (at best they are lukewarm) and never have cold milk, and I have been surprised to get a cup of hot coffee (if you can call it coffee).

And my understanding from inmates who work in the kitchen is that sanitary conditions are far from Grade A. There are rodents and roaches in the kitchen. Prisoners see bread that the mice have nibbled on.

Finally, there is a lack of activities for the general population. With only one classroom for over 500 women, there is not enough space for classes and activities. And because there isn't a lot to do, there is a lot of violence here.

I challenge anyone from the community to dispute what I have said. Come talk to women at random and see if you don't hear the same story over and over again.

Dianne Davenport


The writer is a detainee at the Baltimore City Detention Center for Women.

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