Conditions in jail found to violate prisoners' rights
Justice Department study of Baltimore City center deplores health care;
Several deaths 'preventable'
By Michael James
August 31, 2002
The U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division has found that
conditions at the Baltimore City Detention Center violate the constitutional
rights of inmates and appear to have played a role in the deaths of several
prisoners, some of whom received little or no medical attention for chronic
Chief among the findings in the Justice Department's report is that the
state-run detention center - parts of which were built in 1803 - has a
poorly run system of health care and suicide prevention that often takes
days to assess an inmate's medical needs. In some cases, the problems proved
deadly, according to the report, which gives state officials 49 days from
Aug. 13, when the report was issued, to propose solutions.
"We find that persons confined suffer harm or the risk of serious harm," the
report concluded, citing several examples of jail suicides, heart-attack
deaths and fatal asthma spasms that federal authorities deemed "preventable
if the inmates' conditions had been properly treated."
The report was made public yesterday, when state officials released it.
Stuart O. Simms, chief of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and
Correctional Services, which oversees the detention center, acknowledged
yesterday that the jail faces serious problems. He said he has begun to
speak with health care administrators for advice and help in delivering
better care at the jail, which each year admits more than 43,000 inmates.
"We have collectively become the largest emergency room in the state," Simms
said. "Our arrest population has some of the most severe health problems in
the country. We're faced with a community health issue."
Justice officials visited the detention center and the city's Central
Booking and Intake Center several times in 2000. Among the deaths that they
document in their report:
- A 29-year-old woman who hanged herself with a paper gown Aug. 16. She had
tried to kill herself the same way the day before but failed and was ordered
on a suicide watch in which she would not receive the gown. Despite that,
she was given the paper gown rather than the smock typically provided to
- A male inmate who died of natural causes Nov. 22 after collapsing in his
cell at central booking. Although his cellmate tried to get corrections
officers' attention, CPR was not performed on the man for several minutes.
- A man who died May 19 of hypertension and cardiovascular disease a
day-and-a-half after being jailed. The man, who had a long history of
medical problems, was not given a medical screening though he had needle
tracks on his arms, and cocaine and other drugs in his system that should
have raised concern that he was going through withdrawal.
- A heroin-addicted man who died July 18 after being in custody 24 hours and
who had told an officer during a medical screening that he was on medication
for high-blood pressure. He was never seen by one of the jail's health
professionals and died of cardiovascular problems likely aggravated by his
detoxification from drugs.
- A man who died of an asthma attack Dec. 2 after having last received
medical attention 19 days before, when he was put on intravenous fluids
because of severe breathing problems and other health concerns. He died
struggling to use an asthma inhaler that failed to work because of overuse.
- A mentally ill 41-year-old inmate who committed suicide Dec. 18. The
inmate was never referred to a mental health professional at the jail for
evaluation, and was taken off a suicide watch by a nurse who apparently did
not perform a suicide assessment.
"These and other completed suicides illustrate lapses in the suicide
prevention system and also reflect the systemic mental health delivery
problems such as inadequate access to care," the Justice Department report
states. "The booking screen process does not sufficiently identify those who
need medical attention or observation, nor sufficiently trigger medical care
The inmates' names are not provided in the Justice Department report, and
state public safety officials said yesterday that they weren't able to track
down the names.
Leonard A. Sipes Jr., a spokesman for Public Safety and Correctional
Services, said state officials are trying to come up with solutions to the
problems, many of which he said are attributable to a lack of funds and poor
conditions inside the jail. One option would be to replace the antiquated
jail building - at a cost of about $100 million, he said.
Another option would be to form a partnership with a hospital or health
system that would take over aspects of the jail's health care. Sipes pointed
to statistics that show that Baltimore correctional facilities have one of
the highest rates of intake for people with AIDS and tuberculosis.
"We're talking here about an amazing degree of medical problems that has
overwhelmed our existing capacity," Sipes said. "We are dealing with a very
sick population. We're going to use the Justice Department's report as a
road map for change, but people have to understand that prisons and jails
are not medical institutions and hospitals. Are we supposed to become the
public health hospital for the city of Baltimore?"
State officials also pointed to Department of Justice statistics that show
that though Maryland has a high number of inmates with health problems, the
state's correctional system has a lower death rate than the national
Sipes said part of the problem at the jail is the large number of inmates
incarcerated on minor charges. Such inmates are good candidates for
alternative-sentencing programs rather than jail, Sipes said.
"Does it really make any sense for the state to keep someone locked up on
$500 bail, just to incur $20,000 in medical costs?" Sipes said.
Seven deaths this year
State figures show that 19 people died in the city detention center in 1999;
12 died in 2000; 12 died in 2001; and seven have died so far this year.
Among the most recent deaths is that of James E. Huddleston, a Baltimore man
who died of heat-related causes June 29. A state medical examiner determined
that Huddleston had a temperature of 107.4 degrees when he died.
Overheated conditions have troubled city jail officials much of the summer,
particularly in the women's detention center, where temperatures have hit
110 degrees. The overheated conditions and a lawsuit filed on behalf of
inmates prompted a federal judge to sign an order this month requiring state
officials to provide air conditioning for 210 detainees in the facility by
The Justice Department report outlines other problems at the detention
center, including improper fire safety precautions, failure to provide
exercise and educational opportunities, and filthy, roach-infested
"Insects are a major problem," the report states. "Dead roaches and
droppings were prevalent in the commissary area ... we also found roach
droppings, spiders and gnats in residence areas."
State and Justice Department officials will discuss possible remedies during
the next month.
The impetus for the Justice Department report was a 1999 investigation by
New York-based Human Rights Watch, an international human rights group. It
found that hundreds of children were jailed in appalling conditions in
Maryland, including the city detention center.
Michael Bochenek, chief counsel to Human Rights Watch, said yesterday that
he contacted the Justice Department in late 1999 and asked it to consider an
investigation in Baltimore. Officials there agreed.
Bochenek said he vividly remembers the problems he saw during visits to
"What was quickly apparent was that the city detention center is an archaic,
decaying facility," Bochenek said. "It's ancient. There are many
difficulties in housing inmates in humane conditions in a building that is
Copyright (c) 2002, The Baltimore Sun
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