State has 4 years to fix jail

Accord with Justice sets up monitoring system on changes, may avoid litigation

January 18, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,Sun reporter

The agreement that Maryland prison officials reached with the U.S. Department of Justice this week gives the state four more years to make fixes at the Baltimore City jail, sets up a monitoring process for making improvements and could stave off costly litigation between the state and federal government.

If the state hasn't "substantially complied" with the agreement after four years, the Department of Justice can pursue litigation, according to a memorandum made public yesterday.

The department's investigation of the state-run jail began in 2000 and has spanned two gubernatorial administrations. State and federal officials have negotiated for years on how to best resolve problems that include poor health care and living conditions for adults and juveniles at facilities that include the city Detention Center and the Central Booking and Intake Center.

The state has made some costly improvements, such as a new air-conditioning system for the women's detention center and the hiring of a new medical contractor in mid-2005. Millions of taxpayer dollars are expected to be spent in such areas as fire safety and medical and mental health care. And new jails for juveniles and women are being considered.

Civil rights advocates say that conditions at the jail remain a problem and that a lot of work still must be done.

The agreement "could be a blueprint for a positive change," said Sally Dworak-Fisher, an attorney for the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center, a nonprofit group that is part of a long-standing lawsuit against the jail.

"It seems like it will depend on the commitment of resources and the good faith of the new [gubernatorial] administration and the legislature," Dworak-Fisher said. "They're agreeing to do these things in the future. It's terrific that they're putting this down on paper, but we want to see the changes implemented."

A memorandum of agreement was signed by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Mary Ann Saar, who retired this week. But its implementation will be the responsibility of Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was sworn in yesterday to replace Ehrlich. O'Malley has yet to announce a replacement for Saar.

Inspections began

The Department of Justice began inspecting the jail in 2000. In August 2002, the department issued a findings letter, which stated that many conditions at the jail, where people are detained pending trial or serve short sentences, "violate the constitutional rights of inmates. We find that persons confined suffer harm or the risk of serious harm from deficiencies."

The agreement reached this week does not place blame. But it does set out procedures and a timetable that state officials must follow to bring the jail into compliance with the department.

The agreement requires that the state make improvements in many areas highlighted as being deficient in the 2002 report. The areas include medical and mental health care, staffing and training, chronic disease care, medication, emergency care, security, juvenile treatment and conditions, education, and fire and environmental safety.

The state has four months to develop an "action plan" and will be expected to file subsequent "compliance reports" to the Justice Department twice a year. The department also will conduct periodic visits to the jail and will be allowed to speak with inmates and staff confidentially.

Cynthia Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department's civil rights division, said the federal agency tries to resolve issues at correctional and detention facilities without litigation. Magnuson said the agreement struck with Maryland was "pretty standard."

"It's to the benefit of both parties," she said. "In this particular case, there's lots of work to do to achieve full compliance. We're going to partner with them in an effort to reach full compliance with the law."

Stuart M. Nathan, an assistant attorney general who represents the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and who was involved in the negotiations, said yesterday that Saar wanted to complete the agreement before she left because she felt it was "the right thing to do."

Nathan said the state has done its best to cooperate with the Justice Department, giving its inspectors and investigators access to the facilities even though they weren't required to do so.

"There never was a time where we dug our heels in; we've always been open," Nathan said. He said the Justice Department recognized that "there had been improvements over the years" at the city jail.

Since the department began inspections at the jail in 2000, some of the changes have included a new air-conditioning system for the women's jail, improved ventilation for the men's quarters and increased spending on inmate medical care, he said. He said the jail is installing a new fire safety and alarm system.

He said that new buildings for women detainees and juveniles charged as adults are in the early planning stages.

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