Crammed for hours inside a concrete room at Baltimore's booking center, the men awaiting court hearings jockey for space on the floor.
The air is thick and foul, so they covet the patch of floor by the sliding steel door. There, inmates put their cheeks to the floor to suck fresh air through the crack beneath the door.
"When I couldn't have that spot," said Henry Thiess, who was arrested last Sunday on assault charges, "I laid under the toilet so I didn't have to worry about being stepped on."
For hours, Thiess moved from one overcrowded cell to the next. He was held for more than 24 hours before seeing a court commissioner, one of hundreds in recent weeks who have lingered as long as four days in cells that Thiess described as filled with "piles of people."
On Monday, a judge ordered the state officials who run the Central Booking and Intake Center to comply with state law and release all suspects who don't receive a court hearing within a day of being arrested. But the judge said his temporary order is not a long-term solution.
Though the official who oversees the state facility insists it is safe, even he won't defend its environment.
"You get into a gray area when you say, `Is it humane?'" said Commissioner William J. Smith of the state Division of Pretrial Detention and Services. "Certainly it's not the best."
More suspects, longer
The problem, Smith said, is that Central Booking - a hulking gray structure downtown - is being used to detain more suspects for longer than was ever expected. It has become a holding facility rather than a processing center.
Opened in 1995, the building cost $56 million.
"I don't think [the public] got what they were promised," said Natalie Finegar, the chief attorney at Central Booking for the Office of the Public Defender. "The place opened up overcrowded, and it only got worse."
Smith denied three recent requests by The Sun to tour the facility. Defense attorneys, suspects, visitors and advocates described the building and the conditions in which people are housed.
Thiess, like all the others there, has not been found guilty of a crime. Central Booking is where people go after they are arrested in Baltimore, no matter how minor the charge. Many will never be found guilty of anything.
About 30 percent of the people whom city police arrest, not including those picked up on warrants, never even face charges. Prosecutors determine that there's not enough evidence to support a charge or that the alleged wrongdoing, such as loitering, was abated by the arrest.
Inside Central Booking, suspects are photographed, fingerprinted and jammed into cells while they wait for others to decide whether they should go free or see a court commissioner.
Minor cases slowest
Those accused of the most serious crimes are whisked through the system. The process goes slowest, prosecutors and others said, for first-time offenders arrested on minor charges.
The facility was supposed to be a state-of-the-art processing center. Receiving a court hearing within 24 hours was never supposed to be an issue. Suspects whom prosecutors decided not to charge and those released without having to post bail were to move through the facility in about five hours.
If a bail was set, and a suspect couldn't make it, he was to be moved immediately to the detention center next door - not be detained for weeks.
Problems developed almost as soon as Central Booking opened. A 2002 Department of Justice report found that officers there weren't properly trained for medical and mental health screenings.
In February, Maryland Occupational Safety and Health opened its own investigation of alleged crowding and hazardous conditions.
Built for a population of 895, Central Booking regularly holds about 1,200, officials said.
It has two distinct areas - the booking floor and the upstairs towers. Because of the recent furor over quickly processing suspects, the booking floor has drawn most of the attention.
People arrested come in on the booking floor. They go through a cursory search and medical examination before being interviewed. They are placed in holding cells to await being fingerprinted and photographed. After that, they are placed in another cell while they wait for police to perform warrant checks, corrections officials to perform another warrant check and prosecutors to decide whether to charge them with crimes.
Each cell has concrete walls, a concrete bench and a metal toilet with connected sink. The sliding steel door has a window to the inside. Stripped of their watches and without a window to the outside, suspects lose track of time, many said.
Smith, of the state pretrial division, said cells designed for one or two people waiting for a court hearing hold as many as five. Cells designed for eight to 10 hold as many as 16, he said.
In court documents, public defenders allege that 20 people cram into eight-person cells.
40 people in a cell