U.S. judge orders women in hot jail to be screened

Deadline for exams unrealistic, state says

August 17, 2002|By Andrew A. Green and Jamie Stiehm | Andrew A. Green and Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A federal judge ordered immediate medical examinations yesterday for all inmates housed in the Baltimore women's detention center, saying the soaring temperatures inside could put them at risk of serious injury or death.

U.S. District Court Judge Andrew M. Davis ordered the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to conduct the screenings within 24 hours. If any of the women are deemed at risk, they are to be moved to another facility within six hours.

LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of Maryland's pretrial detention and services division, said late yesterday that the state could not screen all the women within 24 hours.

Flanagan said his legal counsel sent the court a status report last night saying that 112 of the 570 women in the detention center already have been identified as at medical risk. The rest will not be screened until the state can provide more medical personnel.

Air-conditioned quarters will be provided for 36 of the 112 women today and 28 more by Monday, Flanagan said.

The detention center has neither air conditioning nor consistent ventilation, and employees and inmates have complained of illness because of the intense heat inside. At 1 p.m. yesterday, readings in the center ranged from 96 to 100 degrees.

Joseph H. Young, an attorney who helped filed the case in federal court for the American Civil Liberties Union, said women with asthma or heart conditions or who are taking certain medications are especially at risk for problems because of the heat.

But the plaintiffs in the case worried that temperatures in the facility are so high that even previously healthy women could have problems.

"When you're looking at any facility where you're keeping people in a confined space with sustained temperatures in excess of 100 degrees, you're talking about a problem," Young said.

The ACLU argued that conditions in the jail violated the 8th Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It also argued that conditions violated the terms of a consent degree requiring that Baltimore jails be adequately ventilated and provide inmates ready access to medical care.

Elizabeth Alexander, director of the ACLU's national prison project, said the state has long known about the problems posed by excessive heat in the jail and has failed to address them. She said that if jail officials don't have a place for inmates running the risk of heat injury, they should find one.

"There is no way anybody connected with the jails could not, by simply walking in the front door, realize how terrible that place is," Alexander said. "The heat has been unbelievable."

The lack of air conditioning isn't unusual for a detention center in Maryland, but the ventilation problems are. In Baltimore County, the women's detention center isn't air conditioned but officials have kept temperatures in check by opening windows and bringing in extra fans, said county Jail Administrator James P. O'Neill.

The city jail, built in 1964, also has fans and ice for the women but has no windows to open.

Alexander said she knows of similar lawsuits dealing with overheating of jails in Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi and New York.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and several state legislators from Baltimore joined the outcry yesterday.

Dels. Howard P. Rawlings and Lisa A. Gladden, both Baltimore Democrats, and Jean B. Cryor, a Montgomery County Republican and Virginia P. Clagett, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, questioned Flanagan about when more air conditioning would be available for inmates.

Flanagan promised that the fifth-floor gym, a large common space, would have a trailer-mounted air-conditioning system installed by Monday, though he noted that the building was not designed for central air conditioning.

"This is a dilapidated old facility," Flanagan told them. "It needs to be razed and rebuilt."

All women have access to ice and cold water, Flanagan said.

At a news conference yesterday, the NAACP Baltimore branch president, G.I. Johnson, said a team toured the facility this week and found it deficient.

"The bottom line is that it's oppressive," he said. "We consider this a human rights and civil rights violation."

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