A jail in crisis

January 02, 2004

BALTIMORE'S JAIL should carry a warning: "Hazardous to your health." That's the contention of lawyers for inmates at the Baltimore City Detention Center in East Baltimore who recently sought help from the federal court to address issues of medical neglect and unsanitary conditions there.

These problems aren't new; in fact, they are long-standing. A year ago, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a scathing report that concluded the state's operation of the facility was so poor in several areas that it had violated inmates' constitutional rights.

So what's happened in a year? The allegations by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union suggest that nothing's happened, that the jail remains unsafe and unhealthy: rodent infestation, sewage flooding, ceiling collapses. It suggests that indifference or, worse, outright neglect has compounded problems there.

The Ehrlich administration, which took office four months after the Department of Justice issued its report, says it is working systematically to respond to problems; state officials point to a Dec. 24 city health inspection that found conditions in the jail kitchen greatly improved.

A federal judge ultimately will be the arbiter of the state's diligence. Public safety chief Mary Ann Saar's appointment of a top corrections official to oversee treatment services indicates her understanding of the pressing needs in the system and at the jail. Her decision to assign a staffer to monitor the private contractor that provides medical services at the jail also shows a determination to ensure proper care; if care is indeed lacking, the state should withhold payment.

Problems at the jail date to the 1970s, when inmates first sued over deplorable conditions. Before it was the state's problem (the state assumed control of the jail in 1991), it was Baltimore's problem. As the ACLU lawyers put it: The Baltimore detention center "has long been in crisis."

But the state of the jail - routinely overcrowded and historic in its antiquity - does not relieve the state from its legal and moral obligation to provide a safe and secure environment for inmates, the majority of whom have only been charged with a crime, not convicted of one. The physical limitations of this facility make the job harder, but no less a priority.

The most troubling aspect of the ACLU complaint deals with claims of medical neglect: inmates undergoing painful withdrawals from drugs without proper care; HIV-positive and mentally ill inmates not receiving medications in a timely fashion, if at all; lax response to health complaints, delaying treatment for days or weeks.

The inmates' lawyers want the federal court to give them access to inmate medical records and other files and to permit an expert of their choice to inspect the facility. If the state can't demonstrate its commitment to safeguarding inmates' constitutional rights, then the court shouldn't hesitate to look favorably on the inmates' request.

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