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Baltimore council investigating conditions for youths housed at adult jail

A report from a public defender claims youth detainees are living in squalid conditions with limited access to healthcare and education


Photo/Ulysses Muñoz of Baltimore Sun via TNS

By Cassidy Jensen
Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — The Baltimore County Council is investigating a report from Maryland’s public defender that youth detainees at the county jail are living in squalid conditions with limited access to health care and education.

Democratic Councilman Mike Ertel told The Baltimore Sun on Tuesday that the council was posing questions to jail management and requesting a tour of the facility. “We expect and will ensure we have a safe, humane and sanitary corrections facility,” Ertel said in a text message.

Deborah St. Jean, director of the public defender’s Juvenile Protection Division, accused the Baltimore County Detention Center in a March 6 letter of violating federal laws and demanded the transfer of the youths to a juvenile facility.

Baltimore County Council Chair Julian Jones Jr., a Democrat, said he was surprised by the allegations, calling them “very serious.”

Jones said the County Council plans to invite Walt Pesterfield, director of the county Department of Corrections, to brief council members on jail conditions in the next few weeks. Pesterfield was named in December to replace Gail M. Watts, who had led the department since 2017.

He said the letter’s description of youths held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day with inadequate schooling particularly concerned him. “The allegations I heard sound very serious to me and I’m committed to finding out what we can do to fix them,” Jones said.

Pesterfield is scheduled to brief the Baltimore County representatives from the Maryland House of Delegates on Friday morning, according to an online agenda.

Baltimore County spokesperson Erica Palmisano said in a statement Wednesday evening that Pesterfield and county deputy administrative officer Rebecca Young “evaluated” current jail conditions in response to the letter.

“It appears that in many cases, conditions were not found to be as described; however, the County has identified some areas for improvement,” she said in the statement, adding that the county will respond further after finishing its investigation.

Palmisano also said Pesterfield was implementing changes to corrections department policies before receiving the letter and that the courts, not jail administration, determine whether minors will be held at the facility.

The poor conditions and reports of solitary confinement at the jail in Towson are not new, said advocate Ian Miller, a member of the Legal Justice Alliance of Baltimore County.

St. Jean’s letter refers to a 2018 investigation by juvenile public defenders with similar findings, and quotes an affidavit from Watts in which she acknowledged “it is an on-going challenge for BCDC to provide programming, educational opportunities and rehabilitative supports to juveniles charged as adults.”

“We can’t let the story go away,” Miller said. “This is the opportunity for changes to be made.”

Miller, who also serves on the Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee, said he was disappointed that the Baltimore County Democratic Party has not condemned the conditions for youth detainees and requests by prosecutors to hold children in the adult jail.

The public defender’s office represents 13 detainees under age 18 who are being held at the Baltimore County Detention Center, spokesperson Melissa Rothstein said Tuesday. Palmisano said there were 14 minors in the jail as of Tuesday, an increase from 12 at the end of last week. The facility also houses more than 1,000 adults.

In the letter, St. Jean requested that the Baltimore County youths be transferred to a facility run by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. She also suggested Baltimore County minors could be placed at the Youth Detention Center in Baltimore City.

At a youth’s bail review hearing, a judge can allow them to be placed in a juvenile facility. A judge also would need to approve the transfer of a minor from the Baltimore County jail. “If the court amends an order, DJS would work with the local correctional facility to move the youth to a DJS facility. We work with local corrections across the state all the time to do this,” wrote Eric Solomon, a spokesperson for the Department of Juvenile Services, in an email to The Sun.

Solomon said the Department of Juvenile Services currently has the capacity to accept youths from the Baltimore County jail.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, told The Sun no agency has approached the department about sending detainees to the youth city detention center, which is legally bound to serve only Baltimore City arrestees. “Any change to this mission would require a thorough analysis,” Vernarelli said in an email.

The youths in the county jail have been charged as adults, a practice that could be altered by a bill Maryland lawmakers are considering that would require kids facing charges to enter the criminal system through juvenile courts. Senate Bill 93, cross-filed as House Bill 96, would give state’s attorneys the burden of convincing judges that the case should be tried in adult court.

Under current law, there are 33 offenses, including abduction, kidnapping, first- and second-degree murder, first- and second-degree rape, and armed carjacking, that automatically land children in adult court. Also, children who previously have been convicted in criminal court are sent to adult court if they face a subsequent charge.

Youths awaiting trial, apart from those charged with first-degree murder, can be housed in juvenile detention centers, Solomon said.

The public defender’s letter described inadequate food, a failure to separate kids from adult detainees, limited access to showers, a “long and arduous” process to see a doctor, rodent problems and toilets that overflowed in cells.

This is not the first time plumbing problems have been reported at the jail, which underwent a $77 million expansion in 2006. In 2020, a 37-year-old man at the jail filed a federal lawsuit alleging that detainees were confined to their cells after raw sewage leaked into the cellblock.

The public defender’s letter said the jail was failing to follow individualized education plans for disabled students. Baltimore County Public Schools spokesperson Charles Herndon told The Sun that the plans were being implemented, along with state testing.

Baltimore County Public Schools teaches about 48 students from ages 14 to 21 in the jail using a “self-paced blended learning model” with web-based content and in-person teacher instruction, Herndon said in an email. About 10 county schools staff are assigned to the program.

The letter to county officials included a written response from the jail’s personnel manager, Kelly Shaw, to a list of questions from the public defender.

Asked by the public defender whether youth are in their cells “for extended periods of time,” Shaw said students at the jail attend classes from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

“Detainees are housed in their cells except for when they are attending classes or on their allocated walk time,” an hourlong period that occurs sometime after school ends at 2:30 p.m., Shaw said in her response to the public defender.

Shaw also confirmed that appointments for non-chronic medical care cost $4. Asked about mental health programming, she said juvenile detainees receive “behavior counseling and psychotropic medications” while at the jail.

When police bring detainees to the jail, they are first taken to an intake unit, said John Rusnak, executive director of Uncuffed Ministries, where it’s logistically difficult to separate adults and kids from one another as required by law.

Juvenile public defender Michelle Kim said in an interview that a 16-year-old girl at the jail in 2020 told her adult men exposed themselves to the girl and her co-defendant when she was first brought to a holding cell. “She said they made her so uncomfortable that she didn’t go the restroom until the next day when they were moved,” Kim said.

Rusnak said he last visited the tier where kids are held on Tuesday and called it “clean and safe.”

“I’ve been going to the jail since 2009 and I’ve never seen rodents there,” Rusnak said, but said he has spent less time in the intake unit than on the juvenile tier.

Rusnak said that while students can see teachers in person, COVID-19 restrictions and jail staffing shortages have limited youth detainees’ time spent out of their cells. “They’re definitely in the cells too long,” he said.

Sharon Tyler, who worked at the Baltimore County Detention Center for more than a decade and is now retired, said juveniles were not locked in their cells for 23 hours a day when she was program manager. “Appropriate corrections doesn’t have you lock anybody, let alone children, in that long,” Tyler said.

She said most corrections administrators prefer youths be held in juvenile facilities. “It’s staff intensive to keep them safe,” she said.

Rusnak said the letter’s description of medical care in the jail — a $4 copay for medical visits and long waits for dentist appointments or care for concussions, along with limited mental health counseling — is accurate.

“Jails are not really that great with medical care, especially not great with mental health care,” Rusnak said, adding that juvenile facilities like the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Parkville can provide superior mental health services.

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