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PJC Responds to Mayor's Comments that Prisons are "Country Clubs"

PJC Attorney Sally Dworak-Fisher responded to Mayor Dixon's recent comment that prisons are "country clubs" with the following letter to the editor (an abbreviated version of which was published in the Baltimore Sun on October 22, 2007) and in a letter to the Mayor asking her to get acquainted with the facts and be a leader in making prisons a place of rehabilitation. Mayor Sheila Dixon missed the point with her recent comments about prison conditions. [See, “Dixon: Prison facilities are ‘country clubs.’]. The suggestion that our correctional facilities are “wonderful” ignores well-documented reports of prison violence, overcrowding and inadequate healthcare, and overlooks an opportunity for positive change. The Baltimore City Detention Center (“BCDC”) houses well over forty thousand people per year, many of them city residents. It is doubtful that anyone who is forced to sleep among nearly 100 others on the floor of a single smelly room sharing one bathroom, particularly with individuals who may be mentally decompensating, infectious, or cut off of life-saving medications, would consider the conditions “wonderful.” Moreover, such conditions beget violence and further deterioration; a BCDC prisoner was stabbed to death over the weekend, several others were stabbed late last month at BCDC, and prison staff are at risk. Our correctional facilities do very little “correcting” when people are treated like animals. We hope the Mayor will educate herself about the conditions at BCDC, and understand that it is a community institution that affects not only the detainees awaiting their trials (unlike a prison, the vast majority of people at BCDC are those who cannot afford bail and are awaiting trial), but also the staff who work there and the families and communities of both. Simply put, the conditions at BCDC have ripple effects on the entire city in terms of public health, employment and recidivism. We encourage the Mayor to roll up her sleeves to help solve the problems at BCDC, and we would welcome the opportunity to work with her. October 17, 2007 Mayor Sheila Dixon City Hall 100 North Holliday Street Baltimore, Maryland 21202 Re: Conditions at the Baltimore City Detention Center Dear Mayor Dixon: We were concerned to read about your comments regarding the conditions of our prisons. [See, “Dixon: Prison facilities are ‘country clubs.’ in The Examiner, October 11, 2007] We write now to clarify the facts and request your leadership on this critical public health and human rights issue. As an initial matter, it is true that compared to some countries – primarily the developing countries in Latin America and Africa – prisons in the United States are generally cleaner and less crowded. However, we reject the notion that less developed countries are the relevant comparators. And, in comparison to countries more similar to ours – countries in Western Europe, for example – conditions in U.S. prisons are appalling. Indeed, countries similar to the United States not only incarcerate far fewer people, they wisely invest in their prisons as places for rehabilitation. Such countries would surely balk at the notion that U.S. prison conditions are “wonderful.” Additionally, your comparison of our prisons with those of other countries is flawed for another reason; the concerns regarding inhumane treatment stem from the conditions in Baltimore’s local detention center, which is not a prison and is not representative of prisons nationwide. To the contrary, the Baltimore City Detention Center (“BCDC”) is filled with local city residents who are simply awaiting trial; they have not been convicted of any crime and are innocent in the eyes of the law. Indeed, as a legal matter, these individuals are not even subject to punishment. Yet, they may be subjected to inhumane conditions – forced to share one toilet with 100 others (who may be mentally ill or contagious) in cramped, smelly quarters where the only place to sleep is a small plastic boat less than two feet away from the people on either side. Pre-trial detainees are often denied necessary medical care for serious health conditions such as HIV, seizure disorder, diabetes, and mental health diagnoses; at least one detainee has died from the deadly staph infection known as MRSA, and conditions like those at BCDC can be a breeding ground for that contagious and deadly disease. City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is apparently aware of the poor conditions at BCDC, as our office has received several referrals of BCDC detainees with medical problems from her office. We were therefore surprised and disappointed to hear such inaccurate comments from you. We hope, Mayor Dixon, that you will realize that the conditions at BCDC are a community issue for which we all share responsibility. While the State has assumed operational control of BCDC, that does not relieve Baltimore City of its obligations to those who are affected by the current state of affairs. And, we are all affected. The rising levels of violence inside the walls and the contagious diseases and infections affect the people detained as well as their families and communities upon return; and the conditions impact the correctional and medical staff and their families as well. The fatal stabbing of one detainee just over a week ago, and the several stabbings last month are not isolated incidents divorced from the poor and overcrowded conditions at BCDC. Sadly, the problems will worsen as long as community leaders throw up their hands and fail to take action. Accordingly, we hope that you will reconsider your comments about the current state of prisons generally, and take a closer look the conditions at BCDC in particular. In that spirit, we are enclosing a copy of our video, Infected: The Baltimore City Detention Center’s Hidden Health Crisis. Although the video was produced in 2004, the average detainee’s experience today is similar to those described in the video. Further, we hope that you will take note of the recent reports indicating that the number of people with AIDS in Maryland’s prisons doubled between 2004 and 2005, and that Baltimore City has an unusually high rate of the deadly drug-resistant staph infection know as MRSA. We have enclosed copies of those reports for your review as well. Finally, we invite you to work with us to shed light on the inhumane conditions at BCDC and to educate the community and its leaders of the high costs that such poor conditions impose on the City. We simply cannot warehouse inmates in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions without fostering an atmosphere of violence and illness, which then inevitably feeds into a cycle of public health problems, unemployment, crime and re-incarceration. Instead, we must work together to create conditions that are favorable to rehabilitation and reentry. We hope that in the future we can count on the City to do its part and we invite you to demonstrate leadership on these issues. Thank you in advance for your careful consideration of this issue. We invite you to contact us any time, and hope to hear from you soon regarding ways we can work together. Sincerely, Sally Dworak-Fisher Attorney Public Justice Center

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