Annapolis considers tossing the state-run, scandal-plagued Baltimore City Detention Center back into the city's hands

City Paper

State Del. John Cluster (R-Baltimore County) and state Sen. Michael Hough (R-Carroll and Frederick counties) have become experts on matters involving the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC), the city’s state-run jail that was ground zero in the 44-member federal racketeering conspiracy, indicted in 2013, that found the facility was essentially run by a prison gang in cahoots with corrupt jailers. Both sat on the special Maryland General Assembly (MGA) commission convened after the indictment’s embarrassments, and thus had front-row seats to view BCDC’s problems and work on crafting possible solutions.

Now, the two have come up with an answer: Just get rid of it.

Cluster and Hough are sponsoring companion bills in the House (HB 210) and Senate (SB 268) that would, over a five-year period, transfer BCDC back to the City of Baltimore, which had run it as the Baltimore City Jail until 1991. That’s when then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D) spearheaded the state takeover to relieve the city of the crushing costs of running the overcrowded facility in the face of a federal court order that the city solve the jail’s deep-seated problems. Since then, Cluster estimates, the state has spent more than $1.5 billion to run the place, and he and Hough contend it’s high time the state put Baltimore’s jail back in local hands, just like all other jails around the state.

At a Feb. 17 hearing on the bill before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (SJPC), Hough testified that “this has been an experiment that has not worked out well,” according to the MGA’s video record of the hearing, and that it is time to treat BCDC “like everybody else,” since jails are “better run by the local government,” a move that would “save the state” about $183 million a year.

At first, the bill appeared to be all but dead on arrival at the hearing. “I don’t know whether the bill has a future, given the opposition of Baltimore City,” said a veteran committee member, state Sen. Jamin Raskin (D-Montgomery County). Hough all but agreed, saying, “this is going to be a difficult bill, obviously, to pass.” The idea was floated last year, too, by Cluster going it alone with a House bill, and after a short hearing before the House Appropriations Committee, where only Cluster testified and was asked no questions, nothing more came of it.

Then, the dynamic of Feb. 17’s Senate hearing changed suddenly, after Arthur Wallenstein spoke to the committee. Montgomery County’s longtime (and soon to retire) director of corrections, in charge of running that county’s jail system, Wallenstein announced that “I am here to enthusiastically support” the bill, “not because of fiscal issues” but due to “public policy, process, engagement.” He emphasized the “extreme difference between the nature of a jail operation,” which largely detains people accused of crimes before courts have convicted and sentenced them, “and the nature of a prison operation,” which handles convicts’ court-ordered punishments. If Baltimore City controlled its jail, he said, “then you start a debate on the size of the jail population,” the “presence of diversion” options, and “why the population of that jail is so high per capita” when “it does not need to be if there was indeed an aggressive review of alternatives.”

Raskin was immediately impressed, calling Wallenstein’s testimony “very powerful” and pointing out that Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s opposition to the bill is “placed totally on a fiscal basis”—the city, should it regain responsibility for BCDC, would be on the hook for about $200 million a year—“not as a public-safety and criminal-justice issue.” If “this were taken seriously,” Raskin asked Wallenstein, “how long would it take” the city to get “up and running its own jail operation?”

“Five to seven years,” Wallenstein answered, assuming the “commitment” of managers who “promise not to leave overnight” so they can create “a culture of quality corrections in the city of Baltimore.” He asked, “why would you put the safety of the streets . . . in Baltimore City in the hands of an organization that runs prisons all over the state of Maryland?” And he argued that “you couldn’t justify” the current situation ”if you were to write a paper right now on should we continue the operation,” because “I dare say you couldn’t find one advocate [for it] other than someone who is counting dollars.”

Wallenstein was then peppered with committee members’ questions, giving him the opportunity to flesh out his argument. “All the issues are local,” he said of jails, and the “impact” of local control could be “enormous if it’s properly done.” In Montgomery County, he explained, “our success relates to the fact that the county executive has in front of him every single stakeholder group that relates to the operation,” adding that jails “should be no different than recreation, police, finance,” because it is “a core element of city government.” Yet, “right now” Rawlings-Blake “does not have a corrections chief sitting next to her,” he said.

City Paper asked Baltimore City Hall about the bill, contacting the mayor’s spokesman Kevin Harris and her policy chief Howard Libit to explain Rawlings-Blake’s opposition, or at least to provide a copy of the position paper submitted to the legislature, but got no response by press time.

At the Senate hearing, the voice of opposition was sounded by American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 67’s lobbyist, Darrell Carrington, who called it “not necessary” and said it “doesn’t improve the safety or security” at BCDC, while it will “saddle the City of Baltimore with unknown costs.”

Based on Wallenstein’s arguments, though, state Sen. Robert Cassilly (R-District 34) of Harford County challenged Carrington. “Do you disagree,” he asked Carrington, “that there is a benefit to having the mayor or the county executive sitting day-to-day with, at their right hand, the guy or gal who’s responsible for the city or county jail, to say, ‘Don’t forget this issue, do that issue, you Mrs. Mayor or Mr. County Executive, you are responsible for getting these people through, you can’t slough that off on the governor and his staff, this is your responsibility, you have to get the social workers in play, you have to get the programs in play, you have to seek the alternative avenues to deal with burgeoning jail population’?”

With a break to let Carrington answer that compound question, Cassilly continued, saying “there’s a major responsibility here,” and if you “just shift that whole responsibility off to the state level, and this big state bureaucracy, then you lose that local control, that local incentive, that local dynamism, that local flexibility to say step up the plate” and “deal with the issue day to day to day, and don’t turn a blind eye to it. Do you agree with that at all?”

Carrington dodged the question, saying, “I would agree that that’s a conversation that needs to be had, but that’s not what this bill is about,” asserting that “that’s not germane to what the issue is at hand.” Though that’s exactly what the bill, if enacted, would cause: The mayor of Baltimore would, once again, be in charge of and responsible for making sure the jail runs smoothly and effectively.

On Feb. 24, Cluster testified before the House Appropriations Committee about the bill, and, according to the video, he had some news about the SJPC’s thoughts on the issue: “they’re actually looking at putting together a task force,” he explained, “maybe looking at some kind of co-funding, or whatever it may take, but still turn the Baltimore City Detention Center back over to Baltimore City.” Later in the hearing, he added, “maybe that may be the right way to go, to look at a task force, to bring Baltimore City . . . to the table, and have them tell us exactly why they can’t do it, other than . . . they don’t have the money to do it. I mean, that’s basically what their one-page opposition paper says.” So, Cluster continued, “if they do the task force over in the Senate, then maybe we look at a task force over here in the House, also.”

Wallenstein, reached by phone at his office on Feb. 25, liked this news very much. “Fantastic!” he exclaimed, when told about the talk of a task force to explore local control of BCDC. “I knew [the bill] was likely not to go anywhere, but darn it, it’s a good issue. The city should want to own its own jail. If they can get a study committee, that would be worth its weight in gold. I’m doing this because I really believe in it. The reason a jail exists is to engage the pre-trial population, those who are arrested but not yet convicted and sentenced. This is not the work of a state prison system, especially when only one jail in all of Maryland is involved. If you tried to do this today, no one could justify turning over the work of the mayor of Baltimore to the governor of the state of Maryland.”

Editor's Note: There is an update to this story.

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