Baltimore has had a rough couple of months. After the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, there were protests, marches, and small-scale riots. Now May has recorded the greatest number of homicides there since 1971.
All these issues are centered around a broken criminal justice system, but thus far none have directly involved one of that system's most important parts: the Baltimore city jail. That changed yesterday, with a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, along with the Public Justice Center and the Law Offices of Elizabeth Alexander.
The suit alleges massive constitutional violations on the part of the Baltimore City Detention Center, including several possibly preventable deaths, many serious injuries, and grossly inhumane conditions in general. It's a reminder both of the generally poor conditions of local American jails, as well as their bedrock importance in the criminal justice system. Much attention is being paid to criminal justice reform writ large, but any reform movement worth its salt will focus a lot of energy on the humble jail, where suspects, many of them innocent, are housed before they even stand trial.
The ACLU suit is actually a reopening of an old case, Duvall vs. Hogan, the history of which dates back to 1993, and parts of it to 1964. In that time the ACLU and other plaintiffs have engaged in various agreements and settlements wherein the jail agreed to improve conditions; the latest partial settlement was in 2009. The new papers filed in court allege that the agreement has not been fulfilled, and atrocious abuse continues to this day.
The filing alleges that at least seven deaths since January 2013 were "possibly preventable" due to lack of the most basic treatment — failing to provide blood pressure medication to a detainee with severe hypertension, for example. Other detainees were allegedly denied their HIV medication, an awful crime that could endanger others, since they could potentially then transmit antiretroviral-resistant HIV to someone else.
The suit also says the climate control system is often broken, putting weaker detainees at risk of heatstroke, while the toilets often don't work. Half the mattresses are too shredded to possibly be sanitized between uses.
The plaintiffs sum up:
[D]espite a half-century of litigation, and repeated promises by city and state officials, BCDC remains a dank and dangerous place, where detainees are confined in dirty cells infested with vermin. The showers are full of drain flies, black mold, and filth.
For anyone familiar with American jails, this will come as no surprise. Indeed, the Baltimore jail's history is particularly checkered. Only two years ago it made national headlines due to a major scandal that involved an inmate basically running the jail as his own criminal empire. He commanded a gang, ran drugs and weapons in and out of the jail, and impregnated four corrections officers, all from inside. (Late last year, after pleading guilty to racketeering, then testifying for the government, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.)
The most important thing to remember about jails is that most people inside them have not been convicted of a crime — roughly 90 percent in the case of the Baltimore jail. Even convicted criminals deserve constitutional detention, but such conditions for the legally innocent are doubly monstrous. The racial angle is also impossible to ignore. The city is about 62 percent black, but as usual, 80 percent of the jail inmates (and 95 percent of the juvenile ones) are black.
The major question for the future is whether this lawsuit will achieve anything. In a statement, Stephen T. Moyer, the recently appointed secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, wrote: "I was four years old when this original case was filed in 1964. I am 54 and have only had four months to learn about these perceived issues." Clearly, if a lawsuit has been going for half a century, there might be more expedient ways to solve these problems.
One obstacle is the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a 1996 law. The Republican Congress at the time was frustrated with the many expensive remedial actions required by lawsuits against abuse, so the law made it dramatically more difficult for federal courts to force changes in prisons and jails. Therefore, it's not a coincidence that these lawsuits keep happening over and over, according to Elizabeth Alexander, one of the attorneys on the case. "PLRA is set up to force litigants into that posture, because it's so hard to get an enforceable ordinance — and even if you get one, the longest it can last is two years," she said.
Essentially, Congress thought the rights of detainees less important than reducing government outlays, and so made it very hard to sue for violations of rights. But with few other options for abused detainees, people like Alexander and groups like the ACLU at least have to try.
However, legislatures can do more. With crime down dramatically from the levels of 1996, it's high time for PLRA to be reexamined. And more broadly, policy is a much better solution to problems like jail abuse than lawsuits. America is well-known for delegating an unusual fraction of what amounts to policymaking to the courts, which makes for clunky and very slow changes. But by properly funding jails, instituting anti-corruption boards, and above all keeping as many people out of jail and prison as possible, local, state, and federal governments can help ease these problems.
They just have to start caring about the constitutional rights of people accused or convicted of a crime.