City women's jail conditions criticized

110-degree temperatures outrage judge, who wants action plan by tomorrow

August 21, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

A federal judge expressed outrage yesterday at overheated conditions inside the Baltimore women's detention center and gave lawyers representing the state and jail detainees until tomorrow to come up with a medical plan for evaluating and treating the women.

"This situation cannot be allowed to continue," Judge J. Frederick Motz of U.S. District Court in Baltimore said of conditions in the jail that have caused temperatures to rise to more than 110 degrees. "A civilized society cannot tolerate what has happened."

Motz referred to reports that heat has become oppressive, with no windows to ventilate the air. On any given day, the temperature inside can be 10 or 15 degrees higher than outside.

Maryland Assistant Attorney General Maureen M. Dove and Joseph H. Young, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union and jail detainees, said yesterday that they believed an agreement could be worked out that addresses medical treatment of detainees. About 580 women are held at the downtown facility, where most live in close quarters in dormitory rooms with rows of bunk beds.

"Our doctors will meet today," Dove said.

Doctors and lawyers on both sides met after yesterday's morning court session.

"We are hopeful that a meeting of the minds will preclude any litigation," said LaMont W. Flanagan, state commissioner for pretrial detention and services, which oversees the center.

Flanagan and other state officials have scrambled to supply more air conditioning during a hot summer that has seen city District Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey criticize the jail conditions as "sickening."

As of Saturday, state officials said, the detention center will have 160 living units with air conditioning. Screenings show that at least 112 women have "at risk" medical conditions, such as pregnancy or respiratory ailments, that could be affected by high temperatures.

State officials contend that women at medical risk can be safely housed without air conditioning at all times, given that the gymnasium, a common space, has air conditioning.

"They are punished before they're even tried," said Elizabeth L. Julian, the city's head public defender. Her office raised the heat as an issue at bail review hearings for female clients.

Further scrutiny fell on the jail when the ACLU filed a motion Friday claiming that conditions are tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. The ACLU also argued that lack of a ventilation system violates a 1970s federal consent decree governing Baltimore jails.

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