Overheated, underfunded

August 16, 2002

IT'S LIKE a scene out of a cheap prison flick: A wickedly hot summer broils female inmates to where a judge decries their predicament as inhumane, prison officials are threatened with fines or jail, and defense attorneys argue (with straight faces) for mass release of the prisoners.

In Hollywood, this kind of fantasy thrills. In Baltimore, the reality's not entertaining.

The truth is the cluster of buildings that includes the Baltimore City Women's Detention Center represents the state's most pathetic correctional housing. The whole complex, which also includes Maryland's Supermax prison and other state jails, cries out for massive renovation or (here's an idea) a complete razing and reconstruction.

But there's no political consensus. Prisoners, after all, aren't the most popular constituency in Annapolis. And state money, tight right now and not expected to flow more freely any time soon, has never been committed to plans for a massive overhaul of the complex.

The current flap over the heat in the women's jail may win those inmates some short-term relief. To prevent this predicament from recurring and head off other problems with the facilities, there ought to be a political resolve to make the entire complex more livable.

The juvenile wing of the city jail is also not air-conditioned, and it's ill-suited to providing the required correctional and educational services for those inmates. Additionally, the city jail's population is growing beyond the facility's capacity, as police bump up arrests (almost 275 a day now) and the average length of stay gets longer.

Parts of the various state prisons located in the same complex date back to the early 1800s and cannot be made into modern correctional facilities.

Stuart O. Simms, the secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, has a long-term vision for the complex, which involves renovation of some parts, reconfiguration of others and the complete rebuilding of portions. But that plan has never earned the backing for funding. To their credit, legislators have been quick to fund emergency maintenance at the complex (to the tune of about $2 million a year), but they've been reluctant to commit the much higher sums needed for comprehensive changes.

If the sweltering women's jail proves anything, it's that a shift in policy is overdue. Next legislative session seems a good time to start. And, of course, if Mr. Simms and other prison officials are held in contempt over the female inmates' suffering, more immediate interference from Gov. Parris N. Glendening might be required.

Prison shouldn't be comfortable or enjoyable. But it shouldn't be hellish either, as the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment reminds. Maryland has an obligation to ensure that conditions in Baltimore's city jail don't compromise that ideal.

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