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Excessive Heat Still Plagues Baltimore Women Detainees

Despite a 2002 federal district court Consent Order finding conditions at the Women's Detention Center of the Baltimore City Detention Center (WDC) unconstitutional due to excessive heat and despite an injunction issued to immediately remedy the problem, WDC women continue to suffer through the excruciating heat and humidity of the Baltimore summers.

Parts of the state-run detention center date to 1803 yet the administration areas and the men's detention center have air conditioning; the WDC, which dates to the 1960s, does not. In the summer of 2002, public defenders began arguing for bail reduction based on the jail conditions constituting cruel and unusual punishment. Temperatures inside had climbed to 117 degrees F. An investigation had already been launched in 1999 after Michael Bochenek, chief counsel to Human Rights Watch, contacted the Justice Department.

The 2002 Consent Order, issued in response to a motion for a preliminary injunction, required a comprehensive protocol be developed and implemented by September 5, 2002. The protocol required intake screening within 12 hours of arrival at WDC to identify female detainees who are susceptible to heat-related injury should there be a heat emergency. These detainees are then given an H-1 rating.

A heat emergency occurs when the seven-day forecast of the inside temperature is expected to exceed 90 degrees F. (or 88 degrees F. with 35 percent relative humidity), or when it actually reaches this temperature, for longer than four hours. The protocol, required to be in effect from May 1 through September 30 each year, should screen for use of medications that decrease blood flow to the skin, use of psychotropic drugs and other medications that increase sensitivity to heat or alter a person's ability to sense thirst, and use of medications that interfere with thermoregulation. Additionally, recent use of alcohol, cocaine, heroin, or other drug abuse should be checked as well as certain pre-existing medical conditions including dehydration, pregnancy, hypertension, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, heart condition, kidney disease, respiratory illness, and age 65 or older. After the at-risk detainees are covered the Consent Order required a comprehensive protocol be developed for managing the health and safety of the remaining detainees.

The Consent Order also required installation of air-conditioning units by August 24, 2002, to accommodate at least 160 detainees with an additional 50 from retrofitting another area. These areas are for housing detainees at risk for heat-related illness.

Inside temperatures exceeded 100 degrees again in the summer of 2003 and prisoners moved for enforcement of the year-old court order. The state responded saying that more than $100,000 was spent on 55 window air conditioning units and three portable chillers spread through 23 areas. The roof-top unit for receiving and visiting was replaced. All air conditioned and non-air conditioned housing units are metered hourly. Finally, by 2003 summer's end, a pilot project was initiated using commercial-grade de-humidifiers which are more expensive than air conditioning units and may actually heat the now less-humid air. Of course, security concerns were cited with the new equipment. At least $1.4 to $1.6 million is needed to fully renovate the system.

Elizabeth Alexander, one of the plaintiff's attorneys and director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, said "placing women diagnosed as at-risk for heat-related illness in jail units with 97 degree temperature is intolerable and illegal." Bochenek, who had toured the jail before contacting the Justice Department, said the building is archaic and decaying. "It's ancient. There are many difficulties in housing (detainees) in humane conditions in a building that is that decrepit."

The entire detention center has been plagued by other problems including a rash of deaths, many from suicide. Over 50 deaths were reported between 1999 and 2002. Many types of insects run rampant in the filthy, roach-infested conditions. Fire safety, lack of exercise, and no educational opportunities also plague the jail. Even guard shortages are problematic as guards leave one post to fill another, leaving dangerous vacancies. See: Duvall v. Ehrilich, USDC D MD, Case No. JFM-94-2541.

Additional sources: The Baltimore Sun, the ACLU, and the Maryland Attorney General's Office

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Related legal case

Duvall v. Ehrilich