Statistics on juvenile jail assaults don't tell whole story

Department of Justice declines to discuss role

August 01, 2012|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

According to the state public safety department, there's been 11 assaults in the Baltimore City Detention Center's youth annex this year.

Yet in court, a 17-year-old who stands just 5-foot-1 and weighs less than 110 pounds, testified under oath that he alone had been beaten up some six times in a matter of a few weeks - attacked in his sleep by other youths in the 16-to-32-to-a-cage living areas for youth being held on adult charges.

Others, in a series of hearings viewed by The Sun, told similar stories, and said they were threatened with more attacks if they told.

For this story, we had to go beyond the statistics and talk to as many stakeholders as possible, from the youth currently or formerly held in the facility, their attorneys who on visits saw the conditions with their own eyes, and youth advocates. State officials maintain that they believe the allegations are exaggerated.

"I have problems believing that, consistently, these assaults have occurred and no officers have witnessed it or taken any actions," said Wendell "Pete" France, the commissioner of pre-trial detention.

For their part, state officials were willing to give a tour of the facility - four floors of the annex building including the general population and segregation floors, as well as the "Eager Street Academy" where the youth attend school. Concerned that anything other than an immediate tour might allow officials to alter the facility's regular appearance, The Sun pushed for a same-day tour, and while officials couldn't meet that demand, they invited a reporter for a tour the following day.  A reporter brought along a handheld thermometer in hopes of measuring the heat, though our visit happened to fall on a particularly cool morning.

The story came together without any comment from the federal Civil Rights Division of theU.S. Justice Department, which continues to oversee compliance with a memorandum of understanding signed with the state in 2007.

Through that agreement, the federal government "may conduct periodic on-site compliance tours," but spokesman Mitchell Rivard has declined to comment on whether such checks are being performed and to what extent the DOJ has had influence or oversight of the current procedures at the facility.

After not responding to initial requests, Rivard e-mailed a statement, which he asked be attributed to a "DOJ official," that read: "The department is aware of the recent allegations regarding conditions for juveniles in the Baltimore City Detention Center and we continue to monitor their compliance under the extended memorandum of understanding." That, of course, didn't answer any of the questions, and he declined to answer a follow-up request.

The Sun has filed a public information request seeking documentation on what role the DOJ is playing in oversight of the facility.

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