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PJC Letter to Editor on Death in Jail

PJC Attorney Sally Dworak-Fisher wrote the following letter to the editor concerning the recent death in Baltimore’s jail of Mr. Smoot.  It points out the continuing underlying conditions at the jail that have been the subject of the PJC’s Prisoners’ Rights Project.
Letters to the Editor
May 29, 2005
Death of inmate points to need to reform jail
The death of Raymond K. Smoot at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center is unquestionably a tragedy ("Smoot's struggle with his 'demon' ended in tragedy at Baltimore jail," May 22). Yet as the gory details of Mr. Smoot's death continue to captivate and horrify, it is important to realize that such glaring incidents do not take place in a vacuum; rather, they require a sustained and palpable failure of leadership and oversight.
The booking facility where Mr. Smoot was killed is run by the state, not the city. Yet because of its location in downtown Baltimore, detention center issues are often treated merely as "Baltimore problems," not worthy of broader attention by state policy-makers. At the same time, city leaders sometimes view these institutions as out of their hands and play the role of mere bystanders as the fate of their community is largely determined from afar.
Sadly, this leadership vacuum also means that Mr. Smoot's tragic death is not an isolated incident but simply one more example of the multitude of problems that plague these facilities and negatively impact the community.
The recently publicized failures to bring arrestees before a judicial officer in a timely manner, the inhumane conditions that create potential public health crises, the allegations of improprieties surrounding the current medical care contractor and the litigation and U.S. Department of Justice conclusions regarding unconstitutional conditions at the jail are all foreseeable consequences of a sustained failure to commit time and resources to the facility.
The public is not safer when its leaders cut corners and ignore what happens behind jail walls. Unless the jail is given adequate resources to hire and train officers, provide proper health care, provide sufficient alternatives to incarceration and reduce overcrowding and inhumane conditions, no one is immune from the potentially tragic - and more costly - results.
It is past time for the state and the city to demonstrate leadership on these issues and coordinate a meaningful and sustained commitment to systemic reform.
Mr. Smoot's death should serve as a vehicle for change rather than simply another sad statistic.
Sally Dworak-Fisher
The writer is an attorney for the Public Justice Center.

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