Youth detainees transferred to air-conditioned building within city jail

Officials say move had been planned but accelerated based on what's best for youths

August 06, 2012|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Youths detained at the Baltimore City Detention Center were moved over the weekend into a building that has air conditioning, state officials confirmed.

The move comes amid increasing concerns over conditions for juveniles charged as adults at the city jail. While state officials who oversee the facility said it was planned as part of renovations at an annex building where juveniles were held, they also said those plans were accelerated based on what was best for the youths.

The living quarters will continue to be a dorm-style arrangement in a 50-bed housing unit in the Wyatt Building, formerly used for an adult drug treatment program. But the new building has air-conditioning, which the annex building did not have — a major concern of youth advocates who said detainees suffered in the summer's extreme heat and that some had medical conditions such as asthma.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Wanda K. Heard, who has granted several juvenile detainees' requests for transfers out of the detention center annex, said in an email that she was "very pleased" with the move. She had met with corrections officials about complaints from juveniles last month.

The Baltimore Sun reported last week that youths, their attorneys and juvenile advocates have increasingly complained about assaults that occur among youth detainees and what they say has been lax oversight by correction officers. Detainees have testified in court and said in interviews that the group-living situation contributed to fights, typically in the middle of the night.

Several youths have been granted transfers to the Juvenile Justice Center, a detention facility for youths charged as juveniles, even though they still face adult charges.

State corrections officials have denied the claims — the state's public safety secretary, Gary Maynard, said in a statement that "no evidence has been brought to light to substantiate them."

On Monday, Rep. Elijah E. Cummingssent a letter to Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez, who leads the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, requesting a meeting to discuss the office's oversight role at the facility.

Since 2007, the Justice Department and state have had an agreement allowing federal monitors to make visits to monitor conditions. The agreement was extended in April because the state had "not yet achieved substantial compliance," but the civil rights office confirmed that its monitors had not visited since November 2010, around the time extension negotiations began, The Sun has reported.

"Given that problems with such detentions have already been identified and that DOJ has previously agreed to conduct regular oversight to ensure juvenile detainees are receiving adequate care in safe conditions, I would like to understand what steps DOJ has taken to conduct oversight under its agreement," Cummings wrote in the letter.

Since federal monitors last visited, the state made the switch from detaining two youths to each cell in the main detention center building to the dorm-style arrangement in the annex building, where up to 32 youths can be held behind a locked gate, with the ability to move between the beds, a bathroom and a common area. Justice Department officials have declined to discuss whether they were aware of the change or provided input.

The transfer to the Wyatt Building occurred Saturday. Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the state's public safety and correctional services agency, said the new arrangement at the Wyatt Building is "not a permanent solution" and had been anticipated as the first floor of the annex was upgraded to construct a dining area. To get up to the housing area of the annex, detainees and officers must walk past the construction area, they noted.

"The movement of the youth population is consistent with a plan to relocate them during the renovation of the Annex for dining room, educational and programming space approved two years ago by the Secretary," he said in an email. "The pace and timing of this relocation and renovation has moved up based on what we think is best for the youth population."

During a recent tour of the annex, officials did not mention the planned move, and they showed a reporter areas of the building that they said they planned to upgrade, including a spot, where volunteers have been painting murals with youths, that they said they planned to turn into a recreational room.

Officials said Monday they didn't have documentation showing the relocation had been in the works.

In recent years, the Wyatt Building has housed a substance abuse treatment program, according to the public safety and correctional services Web page. Youth detainees could be in the Wyatt Building for up to 12 months as renovations take place, Binetti said.

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