Before the other boys jumped Tyrone, they asked if he wanted to fight.
That was a mere formality. Fights are a regular occurrence among juveniles being held in Baltimore’s adult jail — where the 16-year-old was held for six months on attempted-robbery charges — and he had no say in the matter. A corrections officer sat just feet away, but his indifference created a gulf of miles, Tyrone said.
When it was over, Tyrone was missing a tooth. He ripped off a piece of bedsheet to stanch the bleeding above his eye and quietly climbed back into bed.
“I guess that’s what happens when you get” sent to jail, said the teen, who was being held at the adult facility on Eager Street because he was charged as an adult with a serious crime.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Tyrone's last name has been withheld because his case was handled in juvenile court, where he received probation.
Attorneys with the Baltimore public defender’s office say the fight involving Tyrone—combined with the lack of medical care and an inattentive guard—illustrates troubling conditions at the facility.
In another incident, during a three-day power outage in June, juveniles had to sleep on the floor, where some had defecated, youth advocates say. Jail officials dispute the account.
For months, defense attorneys have stepped up complaints about what they call dangerous and unsanitary conditions, while seeking transfers for their clients. Advocates stress the importance of the issue, in part because most of the juveniles do not end up with a conviction in adult court.
Circuit Judge Wanda K. Heard has listened to case after case involving youths charged as adults and awaiting trial, who have told her about poor treatment in the adult jail.
Days-long power outages. Intense heat. Spontaneous beatings. Inadequate medical care. Corrections officers who are not at their posts.
During the hearings, Heard has become exasperated listening to the accounts.
“The purpose of this detention is not to make you suffer. It is not to physically abuse you. It is not to make you submit to assaults,” she told one young defendant before agreeing to move him to the juvenile facility.
Turning to another at a separate hearing, she said: “You do not deserve this.”
'Struggle to Provide Services'
Corrections officials acknowledge that with current resources they struggle to provide adequate services to juveniles, and they are investigating claims that staffers have left youth unattended. But they dispute the notion that the facilities are unsafe and understaffed.
“We do not have pristine environments in our correctional facilities, but the conditions are not deplorable,” said Wendell “Pete” France, the state commissioner of pretrial detention and services. He said youth advocates and attorneys pushing the complaints are “looking through their lens.”
Poor conditions at Baltimore’s detention facilities have been a long-standing issue — once attracting the attention of globally focused Human Rights Watch — and there have been several court-ordered mandates to make improvements, including one that was extended earlier this year.
But a change last year, which officials say was made in hopes of providing a better environment for detainees, appears to have exacerbated the problem.
Instead of being kept two to a cell in the main facility, the youths are held in groups of 16 — with a capacity of as many as 32 — in large dorm-style rooms, with only one or two corrections officers keeping watch. Detainees and others who have visited them in the facility say there is often no supervision.
The complaints made in recent hearings and in interviews with The Baltimore Sun raise concerns that the state is not complying with an agreement with the federal government to provide adequate supervision and care, youth advocates say. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division did not return a message seeking comment.
Attorneys with the city public defender’s office have become increasingly concerned about the conditions. As an agency policy, they have been requesting transfers to Baltimore’s juvenile detention facility, even though their clients’ cases are still pending in adult court.
Heard has granted nearly all of the requests.
The latest complaints are part of a long-simmering debate over plans for a new jail for youths charged as adults. The state held up the project last year amid criticism from youth advocates who say the jail is unnecessary and that the money would be better spent keeping kids out of the justice system.
State officials say the new building would be state of the art and meet the needs of youth detainees in ways not possible in existing facilities.
France said, “Some of the same folks saying these things are the ones keeping us from building a new facility. … I don’t know what their real agenda is, but I’m kind of getting used to them making statements that really are unfounded.”
In the hallway outside a courtroom last week, Sumayya Nelson, 34, said her teenage son’s asthma is not being treated. She broke down crying and was embraced by another mother whose son said he is being attacked by other detainees.
“I’m not one to condone bad behavior,” Nelson later said of her son’s predicament after he was charged with handgun possession and theft. “If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. But nobody belongs in those conditions.”
Most youths charged with crimes in Maryland are sent to the juvenile court system, where cases must be adjudicated within a month and the emphasis is on rehabilitation rather than punishment. In Baltimore, 4,854 juveniles were processed in fiscal year 2011 by the Department of Juvenile Services.
During 2012, as of July 12, 67 juveniles had been charged as adults in the city.
In Maryland, there are at least 28 crimes for which youths must be charged as adults, ranging from murder to conspiracy to commit assault. They can then petition the court to have their cases moved to the juvenile system. In the meantime, they are held in an adult facility under the supervision of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, whose primary focus is on the thousands of adult inmates it oversees.
More than two-thirds of the youth committed to the adult jail eventually leave without a conviction in adult court — either they are sent back to the juvenile system, or they are found not guilty, have the charges against them dropped or are put on probation.
Still, they spend an average of about four months locked up, a 2011 report by National Council on Crime and Delinquency found, and can be held for years awaiting a trial date.
Since 2007, the state has been operating under a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve overall conditions at the jail, after auditors issued a scathing report that said the jail was “deliberately indifferent” to inmates’ needs and criticized security, medical and sanitary conditions.
It required that federal monitors conduct periodic inspections, bringing in experts to evaluate the jail’s policies and procedures.
Around that time, the state agreed to build separate facilities for women and juveniles. But plans for a $100 million youth jail on nearby land were postponed last year by Gov.Martin O’Malley amid the outcry from youth advocates.
The opponents were buoyed by a National Council on Crime and Delinquency report, which found that the 230-bed plan was inconsistent with trends in the city’s youth population and juvenile crime, which have been on the decline.
At that time, the city had a daily average of 92 youths locked up in adult jails; documents from this month show that number has declined to an average of 47.
But youth advocates also say broader juvenile justice reform is needed. In Virginia, for example, the state legislature unanimously passed a measure in 2010 that calls for youths charged as adults to be held in juvenile facilities unless they are found to be a security threat.
“The state simply has to use effective, proven alternatives to detention to free up beds [at the Juvenile Justice Center] that are now being filled by kids that don’t need to be held,” said Hathaway Ferebee, director of the Safe & Sound Campaign, a Baltimore youth advocacy organization.
Ultimately, most national and local advocates argue, no juveniles should be charged as adults.
They point to research that shows the portions of the brain governing impulse control, planning and thinking are still developing beyond age 18, and they say incarceration adversely affects development and leads to conditions that will increase the chances of reoffending.
The youths deemed unsafe in the adult jail have been moved to the Juvenile Justice Center, a 120-bed facility located on Gay Street and run by the Department of Juvenile Services. Jay Cleary, a DJS spokesman, said the agency is not permitted by law to operate a facility for youths charged as adults, but “if the court issues an order, we do our best to follow it.”
The detainees Judge Heard agreed recently to transfer from the adult jail to the juvenile facility are facing robbery or gun-related charges, including allegations that one shot a man during a stickup, paralyzing him from the waist down. Prosecutors voiced concerns about them mixing with juveniles charged with less serious crimes.
“I think the court has a responsibility to consider others in the juvenile justice center, and is this someone you want to” expose to others there, Assistant State’s Attorney Janet Hankin said at a recent hearing.
Kara Aanenson, the lead organizer of the Just Kids Partnership, said advocates have proposed a $2 million renovation of a vacant building formerly used for women detainees as a temporary solution while they work through the legislature for juvenile justice reform.
“The state says if we have this brand-new facility we’d treat them better, but they can’t treat them now. What’s really going to change?” she said.
The agreement with the civil rights division was due to expire in January 2011, but, in an acknowledgment that the state “had not yet achieved substantial compliance with several provisions,” an amended agreement was struck this past April. While much of the previous document was deleted, the sections about juvenile conditions remained intact.
Officials agreed to give The Baltimore Sun a tour of the adult jail last week, where the juveniles’ dorm-style cells have 16 metal bunk beds behind a locked gate. The brick building’s age shows, though it does not appear to be in significant disrepair.
Though the tour was conducted while the detainees were attending class at an on-site school, they appear to have plenty of room to roam around their beds, a seating area with tables, and the bathroom, which does not have a door and has windows visible from the sleeping area.
Corrections officers watch from a pod between the rooms, and sightlines appear to be poor.
France, the director of pretrial detention, said the open arrangement was designed to foster interaction and socialization among the juveniles, many of whom are being detained for the first time. He said it has worked “to a certain extent.”
“We wanted open dormitories where they could walk around, turn on a TV, play board games, do homework not in dimly lit cells but areas provided for that purpose,” France said.
Of the reported attacks, he said: “There are going to be opportunists, there are going to be predators. We have to be mindful of that, and move in very quickly and extract people from that type of behavior.”
There is no air-conditioning in the building. One day after record-high temperatures, partially opened windows invited in a breeze and window fans were turned on. It was warm, but not unbearable, though deeper into the cells the effect of the fans was minimal.
In extreme conditions, there are misting fans and staffers distribute cups of ice, said Kelvin Harris, the compliance director.
Warden Marion Tuthill pointed to a fourth-floor room where colorful murals adorn the walls. A folded-up pingpong table sits off to the side, and Maj. Kim Wilson said there are plans to turn the space into a recreational area with computers, a sofa and a television.
Most of the juveniles are held on the third floor, with the second and fourth floors designated for those in need of protective custody or segregated for other reasons. While their peers were in class, two boys played the card game Uno near a flat-screen television mounted to the wall. Officials said detainees could not be interviewed about conditions at the facility without the consent of their attorneys.
The protective custody tier had four beds lined up, three of which were dressed. Above one was a piece of notebook paper where a juvenile had scrawled “Trust in God.” On bedside tables were rolls of toilet paper and a bar of soap.
At a hearing this month, defense attorney Edie Cimino told Heard that a juvenile who is being picked on faces a dilemma: “He can take the beatings at night and from 8 [a.m.] to 1 [p.m.] he can go to class, or he can go to protective custody and contemplate the inner workings of his mind for 23 hours a day. … It’s torture.”
Officials say the building has four corrections officers assigned to the three floors, but defense attorneys say they are often pulled away to perform other duties or to use phones on other floors. Tuthill maintained that the building is properly staffed, and that no officers are asked to do anything that would take them away from their assignment.
“That’s somebody not doing their job, and not a staffing issue,” said spokesman Rick Binetti.
Prosecutor Hankin warned in court that defense attorneys would try to take advantage of the complaints, making it difficult for judges to “separate fact from fiction.” City prosecutors generally oppose transfer requests, arguing that many of the assaults described by youth in court are not reported or documented within the facility.
Statistics provided by the correctional system indicate that there have been only 11 assaults in the annex since January.
‘Don’t Say Nothing’
The shy 16-year-old was wearing a tan jumpsuit, fidgeting uncomfortably on the witness stand.
Jonathan was brought to the youth annex in late June after being charged in a robbery, and spent a week on the second-floor intake area for a medical evaluation. He then was brought up to the third floor and placed in a room with 15 other kids.
Almost instantly, there was trouble, he said.
“I was watching TV, and they were just looking at me, the whole group,” he testified in a Circuit Court transfer hearing. Defense attorneys requested that for safety reasons the youth not be identified by his last name while detained.
He got up and climbed into his bed, only to be stirred by another teen — who had been put up to it by others — repeatedly striking him. It caused a deep cut to the inside of his lip, which he attempted to treat himself.
“Don’t say nothing,” the others told him, he said.
But he went to the correctional officers’ station anyway, as the others looked on. “I was scared,” he later explained.
The officer, understanding the situation, told him to write down what had happened so the other boys wouldn’t hear him.
Protective custody on the fourth floor was no better. There, he said, the boys told Jonathan, who is
Hispanic, that he didn’t belong in the country, insulted his mother, took his food, and dumped garbage on him as he slept.
“They were trying to force me to fight them,” he explained. “I told them ‘No, I’m just here to do my time. I’m not trying to get a ticket,'” referring to an infraction. He said he begged the corrections officers on duty to transfer him to a solitary cell.
Most don’t report their assaults for fear of being branded a “snitch.”
In a recent hearing, one teen described getting “banked,” slang for being jumped, and was asked by a skeptical prosecutor why he didn’t tell anyone.
“‘Cause they said they was going to get me,” he said.
Another detainee, who is almost 18 but stands just 5 foot 1 and weighs 110 pounds, said he was jumped six times in June, and again last week. He said corrections officers were sometimes around and sometimes not.
Either way, “every time, they told me they’d do something if I said something,” said the boy, who was transferred to the juvenile jail.
Cimino said in court that she visited a 17-year-old client during the June power outage. Teens, stripped to their underwear because of the heat, had been moved into a large “cage,” and some had defecated and urinated in the corner, she said.
“These boys were made to sleep on the floor, the same floor that was covered in urine and feces,” Cimino said. At one point, when the detainees became unruly, corrections officers indiscriminately deployed pepper spray into the pen, attorneys say.
Corrections officials said the juveniles had to be moved during the power outage because a backup generator failed, and there was a disturbance among the juveniles.
At hearings, the public defender’s office has called on the youths to testify, as well as a social worker who makes regular trips to the facility. The attorneys had witnessed the lack of staffing during client visits and were able to detail them to city judges, but now say the jail has cut off their access to the detention area.
Corrections officials said they were improperly granted access by jail staff.
Meanwhile, France said he’s requiring supervisors to document that officers are where they are supposed to be, as well as provide relief so they can take breaks. He maintains that the criticisms are not supported by what he sees.
“We welcome anyone to look at these conditions,” he said.
Judge Heard, who has listened to more than a dozen cases in recent weeks, said in an interview that she is “satisfied” with recent efforts from the corrections system, after initially having concerns that officials were unaware or indifferent.
She met privately with top officials, and corrections staffers have begun sitting in on transfer hearings.
“It’s going to take a group effort to come up with a solution,” she said.
For Tyrone, who is now 17, his experience at the jail was his first time being locked up, and he says he is determined to make it his last. He was a senior in high school at the time of his arrest, and he is eager to finish school. He’s also filling out job applications.
“I want to just move on, leave my life before me in the past,” he said. “It ain’t worth it.”
Justin Fenton is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun and a 2012 John Jay College Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. This story, which was completed as part of a reporting project for the John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Symposium, “Kids Behind Bars,” originally appeared in in The Sun on July 28, 2012. Please see the full story and sidebars HERE. For other stories completed by Fellows, please visit HERE. Fenton welcomes comments from readers.