Youth in city jail face 'deplorable' conditions

Fights and other problems common, advocates charge

July 28, 2012|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Before the other boys jumped Tyrone, they asked if he wanted to fight.

That was a mere formality. Fights are a regular occurrence among juveniles being held in Baltimore's adult jail — where the 16-year-old was held for six months on attempted-robbery charges — and he had no say in the matter. A corrections officer sat just feet away, but his indifference created a gulf of miles, Tyrone said.

When it was over, Tyrone was missing a tooth. He ripped off a piece of bedsheet to stanch the bleeding above his eye and quietly climbed back into bed.

"I guess that's what happens when you get" sent to jail, said the teen, who was being held at the adult facility on Eager Street because he was charged as an adult with a serious crime. The Baltimore Sun is not using his last name because his case was handled in juvenile court, where he received probation.

Attorneys with the Baltimore public defender's office say the fight involving Tyrone — combined with the lack of medical care and an inattentive guard — illustrates troubling conditions at the facility. In another incident, during a three-day power outage in June, juveniles had to sleep on the floor, where some had defecated, youth advocates say; jail officials dispute the account.

For months, defense attorneys have stepped up complaints about what they call dangerous and unsanitary conditions, while seeking transfers for their clients. Advocates stress the importance of the issue, in part because most of the juveniles do not end up with a conviction in adult court.

Circuit Judge Wanda K. Heard has listened to case after case involving youths charged as adults and awaiting trial, who have told her about poor treatment in the adult jail. Days-long power outages. Intense heat. Spontaneous beatings. Inadequate medical care. Corrections officers who are not at their posts.

During the hearings, Heard has become exasperated listening to the accounts.

"The purpose of this detention is not to make you suffer. It is not to physically abuse you. It is not to make you submit to assaults," she told one young defendant before agreeing to move him to the juvenile facility. Turning to another at a separate hearing, she said: "You do not deserve this."

Corrections officials acknowledge that with current resources they struggle to provide adequate services to juveniles, and they are investigating claims that staffers have left youth unattended. But they dispute the notion that the facilities are unsafe and understaffed.

"We do not have pristine environments in our correctional facilities, but the conditions are not deplorable," said Wendell "Pete" France, the state commissioner of pretrial detention and services. He said youth advocates and attorneys pushing the complaints are "looking through their lens."

Poor conditions at Baltimore's detention facilities have been a long-standing issue — once attracting the attention of globally focused Human Rights Watch — and there have been several court-ordered mandates to make improvements, including one that was extended earlier this year.

But a change last year, which officials say was made in hopes of providing a better environment for detainees, appears to have exacerbated the problem. Instead of being kept two to a cell in the main facility, the youths are held in groups of 16 — with a capacity of as many as 32 — in large dorm-style rooms, with only one or two corrections officers keeping watch. Detainees and others who have visited them in the facility say there is often no supervision.

The complaints made in recent hearings and in interviews with The Baltimore Sun raise concerns that the state is not complying with an agreement with the federal government to provide adequate supervision and care, youth advocates say. TheU.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division did not return a message seeking comment.

Attorneys with the city public defender's office have become increasingly concerned about the conditions, and as an agency policy have been requesting transfers to Baltimore's juvenile detention facility even though their clients' cases are still pending in adult court. Heard has granted nearly all of the requests.

The latest complaints are part of a long-simmering debate over plans for a new jail for youths charged as adults. The state held up the project last year amid criticism from youth advocates who say the jail is unnecessary and that the money would be better spent keeping kids out of the justice system. State officials say the new building would be state of the art and meet the needs of youth detainees in ways not possible in existing facilities.

France said, "Some of the same folks saying these things are the ones keeping us from building a new facility. … I don't know what their real agenda is, but I'm kind of getting used to them making statements that really are unfounded."

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