State lacks federal prison

Local jails used as number of pretrial detainees rises

`Deplorable on multiple levels'

Officials call setup unfair, expensive and safety risk

September 06, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

The high-security Baltimore prison known as "Supermax" opened in 1987 as a get-tough facility for the state's worst behaved felons. But today, the prison holds more federal pretrial detainees -- men waiting for their trials -- than problem inmates.

Although presumed innocent, these federal prisoners live next to Maryland's death row, in a facility that prison officials describe as unreasonably harsh. They are supposed to be preparing for trial, but defense lawyers say visiting them is difficult, and the setting is not conducive for building attorney-client trust.

Federal lawyers, judges and administrators call the setup absurd -- one of many problems caused by the fact that, unlike many large metropolitan areas, the Baltimore-Washington region has no federal jail.

As the number of Maryland federal pretrial inmates has climbed -- from an average of 168 a day in 1994 to an average of 397 today -- court officials have had to scramble to find and rent beds at state and local facilities.

The result, according to many involved with the federal court system, is expensive, unfair and possibly unsafe.

"It's deplorable on multiple levels," said defense attorney and former federal prosecutor Gregg L. Bernstein. "This is something that's very important to the court."

For example:

Because of federal funding quirks, the court system has no money left to rent spaces at relatively inexpensive halfway houses. Instead, the U.S. Marshal Service must put all detainees in full-scale prisons -- a more expensive and harsh proposition, but one paid for out of a different pot of money.

Tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars each year go to reimburse defense attorneys for time and mileage to visit clients housed at prisons in distant Maryland counties and nearby states.

Transporting inmates from various far-flung prisons is a safety risk, according to a number of law enforcement agents and judges.

There have been numerous attempts over the past decade to build a federal jail in Maryland. But every time, community groups and politicians have rallied to stop the project, saying a jail would ruin their neighborhoods.

Most recently, Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson was joined by Maryland's U.S senators late last year in successfully opposing a proposed federal detention center in his county. Activists on Baltimore County's east side stopped talk of a prison there as well.

"This is a great victory for Maryland communities," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said in a statement in November, shortly after the U.S. Department of Justice scrapped plans for a federal prison in Maryland, which would have included housing for pretrial detainees.

"A facility housing over 1,000 alleged terrorists and criminals should not be built next to our schools, parks and businesses," Mikulski said.

But the prisoners have to go somewhere.

"We have needed [a federal pretrial facility] for over 25 years," said Baltimore U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz in a recent State of the Court address. "Our society cannot have it both ways. If it wants to solve the crime problem by locking more people up, it must provide for more prisons and for pretrial detention facilities that permit adequate access to counsel."

Every day in Maryland, there are, on average, 200 more pretrial detainees -- those defendants a judge says need to be held between arrest and trial -- than there were 10 years ago.

In large part that is because there are more defendants in the federal court system, with prosecutors taking more "street crime" cases, such as gun and drug violations.

"We're on the phone, begging institutions, `Can you hold one more?'" said Donald S. Donovan, chief deputy U.S. marshal for Maryland. "We rely exclusively on the professionalism and good-natured-ness of many of the counties in Maryland."

For the most part, local jails and prisons are happy -- when they have space -- to charge the federal government rent, which varies depending on the facility.

"It is economically favorable to the department of corrections," said Ron Leverette, a spokesman for the Maryland Division of Corrections. "It is a contract we've been able to maintain and sustain through a favorable relationship with the federal agencies who use our facilities. It's been a good relationship."

Often the most available space is at Supermax, where state prison officials have designated beds for federal inmates.

While the maximum security prison is relatively close to Baltimore's federal courthouse, it is far from ideal for inmates who have not been convicted and need to talk regularly with lawyers.

"Attorney access continues to be a problem," wrote Maryland Federal Public Defender James Wyda in a recent newsletter for defense attorneys. "I recently waited an hour and a half to meet with a client for a scheduled contact visit. The new attorney booths -- with pass-throughs to ease our ability to review documents with our clients -- remain a work in progress."

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