Lawsuit: Baltimore jail is ‘dank, dangerous,’ and a ‘menace to the Constitution’

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When the night of looting finally died down, some 235 people found themselves locked up in Baltimore City Detention Center. By virtually all accounts, the jail was filled past capacity, only compounded by the fact that Maryland Governor Larry Hogan issued an order declaring that those arrested during the unrest could be held for 47 hours, rather than the usual 24, before seeing a court commissioner.

Shawn Carrié, a writer for the Guardian who was among the arrested, described the jail as "a squalid, gray and soulless place. Hundreds of prisoners streamed in and were herded by the eights and nines into cells built for twos and fours." He described rank, filthy conditions where inmates were fed "utterly inedible" food, while otherwise being ignored.


The looting and the ensuing arrests that took place just after the funeral of Freddie Grey, who died in the custody of by Baltimore police, thrust the city and its troubled criminal justice system into the national limelight. Apart from the actions of the police themselves—six of whom were indicted for their roles in Grey's death shortly after the looting—the city's jail is at the center of it all.

Today, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion to reopen an old lawsuit against the Baltimore City Detention Center on charges that those conditions pose a threat to public health and safety, six years after the case was settled and reform was supposed to come. The conditions of that settlement were never met, the ACLU claims. Those conditions included a screening of detainees' medical needs upon entry, fast responses to sick calls, and accommodations for detainees with disabilities, among other things.


“The Baltimore City Detention Center has persisted for so many years in neglecting detainees’ basic human needs: cleanliness, plumbing, basic health care, and more,” David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said in a statement. “The conditions at the jail are a menace to the Constitution and to the public’s health.”

The motion contains in-depth descriptions of the jail:

BCDC remains a dank and dangerous place, where detainees are confined in dirty cells infested with vermin. The showers are full of drain flies, black mold, and filth. Detainees with disabilities are assigned to cells and units that cannot meet their needs and they are often denied health care supplies, ranging from urinary bag and catheter changes to properly working wheelchairs, that are essential to preventing further damage to their health and also essential to human dignity. Detainees continue to be exposed to excessive levels of heat and humidity that threaten their health. Plaintiffs’ expert found that about half of the mattresses that he examined were so damaged or compromised that they could no longer be sanitized between users, and BCDC still lacks a functional system to launder personal items for detainees. As a result, detainees continue to do personal laundry in sinks, mop buckets and other containers that allow the spread of disease.

Taken together, the motion claims that these conditions are a breeding ground for disease and infection.

“Broken toilets may not be fixed for weeks. Showers are often pest-infested and have black mold. Eating, sleeping, and living in these conditions — particularly when health care is scant — is an extra and unconstitutional punishment for detainees," said the ACLU's Elizabeth Alexander.


The document illustrates specific cases of detainees who the ACLU says were denied necessary medical attention. One case of an unnamed man claims that he suffered a urinary tract infection after jail employees did not get him a new catheter for "periods of five to seven days" at a time. The man, who had to catheterize himself in order to go to the bathroom, was forced to reuse old catheters, the motion claims.

It gets worse. The document describes seven "death cases" that have occurred over the two and a half years alone, most of which it claims were caused by medical neglect, or by arbitrarily denying special diets to those with medical needs. The medical records of detainees with HIV infections, uncontrolled diabetes or hypertension, in particular, demonstrate a surprising absence of consultations with specialists," it reads.


"[One death case] clearly needed a consultation with an infectious disease specialist, given the failure of the regular staff to start antiretrovirals despite his depleted immune system reflected in his low CD4 count. Two requests from medical staff for a consultation did not produce approval of the referral until two months had passed. At that point, the patient was less than three months away from death," it reads.

That man died of sepsis from an infected foot, writes the report. "He had ulcers on both legs and the ulcers smelled," it says. Still, "ordered laboratory tests were not performed."


The case that the motion is seeking to reopen itself stemmed from two previous lawsuits, which were filed in 1971 and 1976, alleging many of the same concerns. The suit was filed on behalf of “that class of persons . . . who are now or who will in the future be confined to the Baltimore City Detention Center.”

Every year about 40,000 people are booked into the jail, according to the ACLU. Calls to the Baltimore City Detention Center went unanswered for this article.


Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.