Minding the jail

January 22, 2007

Four more years to improve conditions at the Baltimore City Detention Center, a jail that has been on the federal government's watch list since 2000? That's not a gift to the outgoing Ehrlich administration. It's consistent with how long it will likely take for the state to rebuild infrastructure at a facility that in part dates to the 19th century. And it keeps the state under the eye of federal officials for that much longer. Until then, mandatory inspections - as well as an unrelated lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates - should keep the state moving forward.

The memorandum of understanding between the state and the U.S. Department of Justice was reached last week. It is the result of years of negotiations on a host of problems that date to a 2002 finding that many conditions at the facility violated inmates' constitutional rights. The deficiencies included poor health care, lack of mental health treatment, inadequate fire safety, the mixing of juveniles and adult prisoners and unsanitary conditions.

The Justice Department has preferred negotiating a settlement in order to avoid costly litigation and allow states to spend those dollars on the needed improvements. And that should be the overall goal. The incentive for the state to comply is the threat of a federal lawsuit, which remains an option.

Problems at the detention center predate the state's takeover in 1991. At the time, the jail didn't even have a sprinkler system; the facility had been a source of inmate complaints for decades before that and the subject of federal court intervention because of overcrowding. It was a black hole that the city had been trying to get rid of for years.

During the 1990s, the state spent about $22 million on plumbing, ventilation and fire safety systems, and since 2000, an additional $5.6 million in upgrades. But the deficiency most troubling to federal officials was the lack of consistent, quality health care for inmates. The state replaced the medical contractor, ending the inappropriate practice of having correctional staff conduct health screenings of inmates.

Now it will be up to the O'Malley administration to comply with the agreement and continue with plans to replace the juvenile and women's sections of the detention center. Its first test will be in four months, when it must submit an action plan to ensure improvements will be made. The state should maintain a steady level of progress.

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