The Baltimore City Detention Facility has a well-earned reputation for being one of the worst jails in the United States. Originally built in 1858, the facility has had a history of deplorable conditions—overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe.
“It not only is a disgrace,” the city’s Criminal Justice Commission president, C. Delano Ames, said in 1938, “but it is a sanitary menace, and a breeder of degeneracy, and if any considerable sum of money is spent in the future to renovate it, will be equivalent to pouring money down a rat-hole.”
Subsequent reconstruction projects have proven Mr. Ames prescient, as the conditions at the jail have not improved much since 1938. In 2002, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division found the conditions to be a violation of the prisoners’ constitutional rights. A later class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union was settled in 2009, with the promise of needed reforms and improvements.
In June of 2015, the ACLU sought to reopen the case, claiming that the conditions of the settlement had not been met. In the request document, attorneys for the ACLU cited the presence of vermin, insects, and mold as evidence of the continuing unsanitary conditions of the facility, even noting the lack of working toilets or sinks in parts of the prison for multiple days.
GOV. HOGAN TO SHUT DOWN THE DETENTION CENTER
All of this history has now prompted Maryland Governor Larry Hogan to shut down the detention center, transferring the remaining prisoners to other more modern facilities across the state.
“The Baltimore City Detention Center is a disgrace and its conditions are horrendous,” the governor said in a news conference announcing the closure. “… Ignoring it was irresponsible and one of the biggest failures of leadership in the history of the State of Maryland.”
Craig DeRoche, senior vice president of advocacy and public policy at Prison Fellowship®, praises Governor Hogan for closing the jail in an opinion piece for The Christian Post.
“Governor Hogan’s willingness to publicly acknowledge the disgrace that this jail was is recognition that imprisonment is not a license for abuse,” he says. “What the governor clearly understands and is courageously confronting is the fact that the conditions and culture in jail have a direct and important impact on the lives of those incarcerated—some of whom have yet to be convicted of crime—as well as the people who work inside the jail and the communities who expect incarceration to move a person away from crime rather than toward it.”
“I applaud Governor Hogan for his strong voice for the God-given value, dignity and potential of each human life—those who have caused harm, those who have been harmed and the communities that have suffered too long with failed institutions and leadership,” DeRoche continues. “Creating a constructive culture in Baltimore’s jails will save a lot more than money.”
DIGNITY AND WORTH
While incarceration is both a necessary and effective form of punishment when used appropriately, it should never be imposed in such a way that it denies the men and women behind bars their basic dignity and worth. By closing a jail that failed to live up to these standards, Governor Hogan has affirmed the value of these prisoners, as well as his belief in the potential for transformation. His decisive action deserves recognition, and there is the hope that other government officials will follow his lead.
To learn more about Prison Fellowship’s efforts to affirm the value and dignity of those in the criminal justice system—from sentencing, to incarceration, to reentry—click here.