The beleaguered Baltimore City Detention Center will close its doors immediately, and advocates for prison reform as well as defense attorneys are hoping the hundreds of inmates slated to be relocated will find better conditions wherever they end up.
Gov. Larry Hogan announced at a news conference Thursday afternoon that the men’s facility will begin moving inmates to other facilities in the city but did not name the facilities for security purposes.
“Frankly, the Baltimore City Detention Center is a disgrace and its conditions are horrendous,” Hogan said.
The Civil War-era building, known as BCDC, houses pretrial detainees and inmates serving shorter sentences – 18 months or less – as well as newly-arrested individuals awaiting hearings.
The jail garnered national attention in 2013 when dozens of inmates and corrections officers were charged in connection with Black Guerilla Family gang leaders directing operations from the facility, from trafficking drugs inside to directing crimes on the outside. The charges ranged from drug distribution to money laundering and led to multiple plea deals.
“We were the laughingstock of the nation,” Hogan said, calling the jail a “black eye” for the state.
Criminal defense attorney Jeremy Eldridge said the attention brought by the scandal led to previously unseen public pressure to address the inadequacies at the facility.
“I think this was a long time coming,” said Eldridge, of the Law Offices of Eldridge & Nachtman in Baltimore.
Eldridge said he and his colleagues are “weirdly happy” about the impending closure because conditions at BCDC are so bad, any other facility has to be an improvement.
“It’s hard to imagine that things are going to get worse,” he said.
Eldridge said he visits clients at BCDC frequently and there is always a wait, sometimes for hours.
When he finally meets with his clients, Eldridge said, he hears horror stories about the facility’s conditions.
“Guys are itching to get out of there,” he said. “People will take pleas to get out.”
‘Dank and dangerous place’
Everything about the detention center is unsafe, added Warren S. Alperstein, another Baltimore criminal defense lawyer.
“It is an awful place to visit as an attorney,” said Alperstein, of Alperstein & Diener P.A. “It is an awful place to work in… It is certainly an awful place for inmates.”
Alperstein compared conditions at the detention center to stories about tourists detained in jails in third world countries.
“In no uncertain terms, the Baltimore City Detention Center should have closed decades ago,” he said.
BCDC is “incomparable” to other detention centers in the state, according to Eldridge, and detainees there are his unhappiest clients.
“It’s good that the governor is realizing this,” he said.
Debra Gardner, legal director for the Public Justice Center, applauded the governor’s decision.
“That’s something that should have happened years ago,” she said.
Gardner said it would have been virtually impossible to solve the detention center’s problems – from excessive heat and humidity to inadequate medical care – without shutting the facility down.
The PJC and American Civil Liberties Union in June sought to reopen a federal lawsuit against the state related to the conditions at BCDC because officials failed to comply with a 2009 settlement agreement that detailed the improvements to be made to the jail.
Gardner said the closure of the men’s detention center does not address all of the issues from the settlement agreement but narrows the scope. Concerns remain about the state of the women’s detention center, which is prone to flooding, and access to healthcare at all facilities, she said.
As the motion to reopen the case alleges, “despite a half-century of litigation, and repeated promises by city and state officials, BCDC remains a dank and dangerous place, where detainees are confined in dirty cells infested with vermin.”
Logistics of transition unclear
Many attorneys were left wondering Thursday afternoon where there clients currently housed at BCDC will end up and how lawyers will be notified.
“They have to go somewhere,” Alperstein said, adding that attorneys will need to know where their clients are in real-time to be able to meet with them and have them transported for hearings.
Overcrowding at other facilities will also be a concern during the transition, Alperstein added.
Gardner said careful planning will be necessary to make sure the transition does not exacerbate problems, particularly inmate access to healthcare.
“Is their medical care going to follow them adequately?” she said.
Unlike most counties in Maryland, where the detention center is the only building in the jurisdiction capable of housing inmates, Baltimore city has other facilities at its disposal, Eldridge noted, including the Central Booking and Intake Center and Jail Industries Building, both located near the detention center.
There are also state Division of Corrections facilities located in the city that could handle some of the overflow, according to Eldridge, but that brings complications because of differing policies between the city and state systems.
Hogan, despite not naming the facilities for relocation, insisted the bed-space exists.
“There is plenty of capacity in the system to meet this need,” he said.
The governor added no jobs will be lost with BCDC’s closure, as corrections officers there will be relocated to other facilities.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement she “has long had concerns” about BCDC and looks forward to hearing more details about Hogan’s plans.
Sens. James E. “Ed” DeGrange Sr., D-Anne Arundel, and Guy J. Guzzone, D-Howard, chairmen of a special joint commission that looked into jail security in the wake of the Black Guerilla Family indictments, said they were “disappointed” Hogan did not consult with lawmakers before making his announcement and said it continues a pattern of “making unilateral decisions without input, context of long-term problems, or transparency.