City jail lockdown could last through year

Security measure represents tougher stance by new leadership

December 10, 2010|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

A series of violent incidents at the Baltimore City jail has prompted a lockdown that could remain in effect through the end of the year or longer, according to state officials and inmate advocates.

Program providers said they were recently notified that they would not be able to visit the Baltimore City Detention Center at least through the end of December. Advocates are concerned that key services and even holiday visits, such as an annual program in which children are able to visit their mothers on Christmas, could be blocked.

Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute, said it was "difficult to imagine a security issue so severe that it is necessary to isolate the entire facility" for such a long period of time.

"Preventing parents and children from seeing each other during the holidays is a cruel and inhumane punishment for the people locked in the facility, 90 percent of whom are still presumed innocent and awaiting their day in court," she said in a statement.

Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, confirmed that the jail has been on lockdown since Nov. 28 as part of a facility-wide search for contraband after nearly a dozen violent incidents last month. Visitors are prohibited, and recreation time has been limited.

Though the incidents occurred in the men's section of the Eager Street facility, the tightened security measures are also in effect for the women's and juvenile units, raising questions among advocates and civil liberties groups. They fear that without support, detainees, many of them drug-addicted, homeless or underage, could end up in some of the same situations that landed them in trouble.

"The lockdown is supposed to last as long as the emergency lasts," said David Rocah, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Binetti would not disclose how long the lockdown could be in effect, but he acknowledged that such security measures have been more frequent and more severe under the new commissioner for pretrial detention, Wendell M. "Pete" France, a former city police commander. In April, his decision to forbid detainees from wearing street clothes drew protests and led to a lockdown that lasted for a few weeks.

In contrast, after the stabbing of a corrections officer in 1996, officials locked down the facility and searched 2,800 cells, recovering 100 homemade weapons in a search that took only a few days.

"The staff will take as long as they need to make sure that the facility is as safe as it can be," Binetti said. "The safety and security of the staff and detainees is the paramount issue."

Binetti said that the jail's administration has pledged to make sure there was no interruption in services for detainees, though some program providers said they haven't been able to connect with officials to clarify the situation.

The Rev. Heber Brown III, who provides mentoring to youth in the facility, said, "We're in the dark."

"While I certainly understand security concerns, it's puzzling to me how this protracted lockdown will bring about a more peaceful, harmonious environment," Brown said. "It's more likely to bring about a contentious climate."

Jacqueline Robarge, executive director of Power Inside, which works with women, said many female detainees will prostitute themselves to get rides home once released. Those without somewhere to stay often don't always realize there are nearby shelters.

"We serve very vulnerable women, many just in a really sad state of affairs," said Robarge, who has worked with the jail since 2000 and said she has never before seen such extensive lockdowns as those instituted this year. "It's crisis proportions for the individuals there, and I don't know what's going to happen to them in this weather."

The Justice Policy Institute, which recently released a report scrutinizing the jail, said its attempts to discuss the matter with officials were unsuccessful. Program providers received e-mails saying they would not have access to the jail until at least the end of the year, and have not been able to find out why.

Most of the jail's detainees are awaiting trial, meaning their rights are covered by the due-process clause of the U.S. Constitution and not the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments, said the ACLU's Rocah.

Rocah said courts have generally given broad authority to prison and jail administrators in determining when an emergency exists and how to respond to that emergency, though the scope of the city jail's lockdown and the apparent time frame set by officials could raise questions.

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