Union criticizes conditions at jail

Several workers fell ill after air conditioner broke

May 14, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said yesterday that they fear an inmate uprising could occur if conditions at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center don't soon improve.

Standing outside Central Booking yesterday, union representatives said the facility's air conditioning stopped working this week, prompting some correctional officers to become sick from the heat.

"After almost four days of this heat wave, the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services has finally repaired its air conditioner, but only after correctional officers were stricken with heat stroke, even hospitalized," said Archer Blackwell, a senior staff representative with AFSCME. "This is an administration that has cut corners and cut staffing, and the safety of the people be damned, both inside those walls and [in] the general public on the outside."

The lack of air conditioning this week -- when temperatures have reached into the high 80s -- exacerbated conditions at the jail, Blackwell and others said. Central Booking was built to house 800 inmates but has 1,400 prisoners, some of whom sleep on floors or are crammed into a gymnasium, he said.

"The administration took an overcrowded, understaffed prison and they might as well have poured a can of gasoline on it," Blackwell said. "These are the kind of conditions that would have taken only a spark to blow it up."

Barbara Cooper, spokeswoman for the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services, acknowledged yesterday that the jail is crowded and the air conditioning was not working for several days.

When the chiller system began having problems Sunday afternoon, state officials immediately began repairs, restoring cool air by Wednesday, Cooper said.

Cooper said officials are "overly concerned" about the safety and health of staff, one reason they rushed to get the air conditioner repaired. "During this difficult time, we did provide ice and water to staff and residents," she said.

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