U.S. Justice Department hasn't visited city jail despite oversight agreement

Complaints about conditions at facility for juveniles have increased since new arrangement was implemented last year

August 05, 2012|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

The U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division has not visited the Baltimore City Detention Center in nearly two years, despite an agreement with the state to oversee reforms at the facility.

The jail's handling of juveniles has been a continuing concern for the Justice Department, and attorneys and youth advocates say changes made last year have exacerbated conditions. The Baltimore Sun has reported that youths describe regular attacks among detainees and lax supervision by correctional officers.

Maryland's agreement with the civil rights division, which is led by Thomas E. Perez, former state labor secretary, was extended in April and allows federal monitors to perform site checks and conduct confidential interviews with detainees and staff. But Justice Department officials confirmed that the last site visit was Nov. 14, 2010.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he would send Perez a letter of inquiry Monday morning to try to get monitors to visit "immediately."

"Here is a test of what Justice said they would do, and if they're not doing it, it's a major problem," said Cummings, a Baltimore native. "The young people who wind up in the detention center are already troubled and this system is supposed to be rehabilitating. When you put them in a position to be harmed, it just makes an already bad situation worse."

While federal officials acknowledge they're aware of recent allegations, they declined to comment further on the department's role.

"That is shocking, and it requires more than a no-response answer," said state Sen.Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat. "As dangerous as the situation has been portrayed, one would think they'd be more on top of their game."

Gary Maynard, the secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said in a statement that he took "strong exception" to claims made by detainees and their attorneys, and said that "to date, no evidence has been brought to light that would substantiate them."

"Our Department continues to meet its responsibility to keep this population safe. And we always meet this population's basic educational, medical and mental health needs," Maynard said.

The jail has undergone a major shift in the past year in the way it oversees youths charged as adults. The state moved the juveniles to a separate annex, where they live in dorm-style cages that hold up to 32 youths. Previously, the young detainees were held two to a cell. The state said the move was made to foster socialization and provide a less restrictive environment.

Juvenile detainees and their attorneys have testified in a slew of recent court hearings — and in interviews with The Sun — that the dorm-style arrangement has led to an increase in assaults. They also say that corrections staff have not been present or have not intervened, and that they have treated their own medical issues.

Those who report assaults are moved to a segregation tier and are prevented from attending the facility's on-site school, detainees claim. The facility, which is not air conditioned, also experienced power outages this summer that lasted days at a time.

In Maryland, there are at least 28 crimes for which suspects under 18 must be charged as adults. Almost 70 percent of those charged are not convicted in adult court, with their cases dropped by prosecutors or waived to the juvenile system, which emphasizes rehabilitation.

But while awaiting trial, the youths are held for months and sometimes years at the city's adult jail, where officials acknowledge they struggle to provide adequate services to juveniles. Advocates want the youngsters to be held at the Juvenile Justice Center, which is run by the Department of Juvenile Services, and say the state's plan for a new, $70 million jail for youths charged as adults is the wrong approach.

The agreement with the Department of Justice has been in place since 2007, and grew out of a report years earlier that criticized conditions and procedures at the facility for detainees, adult and juvenile. It found that the jail was "deliberately indifferent to inmates' serious medical and mental health needs" and that "juveniles detained at the facility are not kept safe from potential harm by adult inmates."

As part of the agreement, officials visited the facility about twice a year, according to officials familiar with the agreement.

The agreement was due to expire in 2011, but in late 2010, the Justice Department determined that the state had not yet achieved "substantial compliance" with several provisions of the agreement. A new agreement was ratified in April 2012, according to documents provided by the state.

Many portions of the 2007 agreement were deleted, with federal officials acknowledging that the state had made progress. But most of the concerns regarding juveniles — having to do with staffing, services and discipline — remained in place.

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