Judge orders air conditioning for 210 in city jail

Quarantine unit, dorms to be cooled by Aug. 31

Facility holds 580 women

Detainees to be screened for medical problems

August 23, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Attempting to cool down Baltimore's overheated women's jail, a federal judge signed yesterday a sweeping consent order that requires state officials to provide air conditioning for 210 detainees in the facility by Aug. 31.

The women's jail houses 580 detainees, so the order in U.S. District Court in Baltimore for air conditioning will cover less than half the female population awaiting trial during a sweltering city summer.

"Nobody would say the solution is ideal, but it is the best that can be accomplished under present conditions," Judge J. Frederick Motz said. "We don't live in an ideal world."

Motz ordered that a health care protocol must be implemented in the women's jail from May 1 to Sept. 30, and that "heat emergency" days may be declared any time during the year if temperatures are forecast higher than 90 degrees.

Elizabeth Alexander, a lawyer with the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said, "It's a major improvement, and we're pleased with the outcome in so little time." She said heat-related lawsuits involving jails are pending in New York, Alabama, Florida and Michigan.

On Tuesday, Motz expressed outrage at the jail's lack of ventilation and high temperatures - often hitting 100 degrees indoors on 90-degree days. The American Civil Liberties Union filed an emergency motion on behalf of the female detainees last week.

LaMont W. Flanagan, commissioner of the state's pretrial detention and services division, said yesterday that he was eager to cooperate with the federal District Court order. He estimated the cost would be $100,000.

"We are making every endeavor to provide a comfortable environment for detainees and employees," Flanagan said. "It will take creative capital investment to retrofit and enclose some areas."

Jail officials have struggled to keep the 38-year-old building cool. The jail was not designed for central air conditioning, and the windows are not large enough for air circulation, leaving the women with only makeshift fans as defenses against the heat. The city's detention center for men, which is in the same jail complex, is air-conditioned, state officials said.

Motz's order calls for air conditioning in a quarantine unit on the fourth level of the five-floor building on East Eager Street by the end of the month. Flanagan said that several dormitory rooms, in which dozens of women sleep on bunk beds, would be air-conditioned by tomorrow.

The jail's fifth-floor gym, a large common recreational space, received air conditioning earlier this week. Units for pregnant detainees, and for chronically and mentally ill women, are already air-conditioned, he said.

For the general population, new medical guidelines will be put into place. Within two weeks, that method for identifying women at risk of heat-related injury or illness should be implemented, the court order states.

Both the state and the ACLU legal team had doctors advising them during two days of negotiations ordered by Motz.

Some of the doctors involved said yesterday's ruling was satisfactory.

"It's not the Marriott," said Michael K. Paasche-Orlow, a post-doctoral fellow in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "This [document] is based not on comfort but on health. The air conditioning is a clear remedy."

Paasche-Orlow participated as a medical expert on the ACLU side of the table, and conferred with state health officials. Detainees will be considered at risk for heat-related illness if they have certain medical conditions, which include dehydration, diabetes, kidney disease, thyroid disorders, pregnancy or hypertension. Women 65 or older will also be considered at risk.

The court order also directs that new detainees be medically screened within 12 hours of entering the jail. ACLU officials said they would monitor compliance with the judge's order with visits, interviews and reviews of medical files.

Joseph H. Young, an attorney working pro bono for the ACLU, said, "We were able to craft an order by no means a panacea, but a substantial first step in protecting safety and health of the women in jail."

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