Baltimore corrections head addresses allegations about youth conditions at jail
Director: “In many cases, conditions were not found to be as described,” but county has “identified some areas for improvement”
By Lia Russell
BALTIMORE — The director of corrections for Baltimore County briefed members of the county legislative delegation Friday morning on conditions for youth inmates held at the Towson jail a week after the public defender accused the county of violating federal youth detention laws, and a day after Baltimore County officials pledged to investigate.
Children under 18 held at the Baltimore County Detention Center are locked up for 23 hours a day in flood-prone, rodent-infested cells, according to a March 6 letter from Deborah St. Jean, the director of the Juvenile Protection Division for the Maryland Public Defender’s Office.
One child hasn’t been outside in the two years they’ve been incarcerated, and others struggle to access mental health and medical services, St. Jean said. Those in the intake unit sleep on mats on the floor, and plumbing regularly floods cells “with contaminated toilet water and debris.”
Children held in the Towson detention facility are there because they have been charged as adults and accused of committing crimes like murder, assault, and armed robbery. Minors who have been charged with lesser offenses are typically housed in facilities under the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.
A pending bill in the Maryland General Assembly would end the automatic charging of juveniles as adults for serious offenses.
Walt Pesterfield addressed the conditions outlined in St. Jean’s letter on Friday morning in a briefing with the Baltimore County legislative delegation. He pushed back against St. Jean’s allegations in a letter Thursday afternoon, saying that “in many cases, conditions were not found to be as described” but the County had “identified some areas for improvement.”
Baltimore County Councilmember Mike Ertel, a Democrat from Towson, said Thursday that the council had requested a tour of the facility and would pose questions to jail management.
Pesterfield said the allegation that children were being locked up for 23 hours a day was “not accurate” and that incarcerated children were separated from adult inmates, contrary to St. Jean’s letter. Children are educated through the Baltimore County Public School system, receive mental health services via the county, and receive medical services via a contract with PrimeCare Medical, Pesterfield said.
He did not say which areas needed to be improved, though he said he toured the facility after assuming office in December and “made some recommendations” that relied on best practices per his past experience as the chief probation officer for the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas in Ohio.
In addition, the county is “aggressively recruiting” to fill some 94 correction officer vacancies, and is continuing to ease some COVID restrictions, Pesterfield said.
“Adult facilities, unless they maybe were built in the last 10 years, are not equipped to have optimal space for juveniles,” he said. “We do the best we can and we make sure that we keep the standards and that’s part of the investigation going forward.”
St. Jean’s letter came after she and other members of the public defender’s office toured the facility in November and witnessed the conditions outlined in her note, which did not differ much from a 2018 investigation from that office that concluded with similar findings, she said Friday in an email pushing back against Pesterfield’s statements.
“The current concerns involved interviews with youth represented by the Office of the Public Defender who did not know we were coming,” St. Jean said. “These youth were interviewed simultaneously by three attorneys in different sections of the jail.”
The county’s investigation will conclude in the next 30 days, after which Pesterfield said he would present its findings to county and legislative officials.