A high-security Baltimore prison known as “Supermax” opened in 1987 as a get-tough facility for the state’s worst felons. Now, says the Baltimore Sun, the unit holds more federal pretrial detainees than problem inmates. The federal prisoners live next to Maryland’s death row in a facility that prison officials describe as unreasonably harsh. They are supposed to be preparing for trial, but defense lawyers say visiting them is difficult, and the setting is not conducive for building attorney-client trust.
Federal lawyers, judges, and administrators call the setup absurd. It is one of many problems caused by the fact that, unlike many large metropolitan areas, the Baltimore-Washington region has no federal jail. As the number of Maryland federal pretrial inmates has climbed — from an average of 168 a day in 1994 to an average of 397 today — court officials have had to scramble to find and rent beds at state and local facilities. The result, say insiders, is expensive, unfair and possibly unsafe. “It’s deplorable on multiple levels,” said defense attorney and former federal prosecutor Gregg L. Bernstein. There are, on average, 200 more pretrial detainees than there were 10 years ago. In large part that is because there are more defendants in the federal court system, with prosecutors taking more “street crime” cases, such as gun and drug violations.