Nearly nine years after former Gov. Larry Hogan shuttered the old Baltimore City Detention Center, a new centerpiece facility for the city’s pretrial jail population is poised to rise from its ashes. But it’s going to cost you.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which has run the city’s jail system for decades, is pushing ahead with ambitious plans for the Baltimore Therapeutic Treatment Center — a sort of hybrid jail, hospital and mental health and substance use treatment facility for people facing criminal charges.

The cost of the $1 billion project is being spread across more than five years, with an estimated completion date in 2029. Once finished, the operating costs are expected to be more than $100 million per year.

The facility’s price tag is $443 million more than initial estimates by the corrections department. It’s being attributed to supply chain problems and inflation. A nonpartisan legislative analysis dubbed the plan “the most expensive state-run project in Maryland history.”

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The state says it needs the new facility to comply with the 2016 settlement of a decades-old lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of health care in Baltimore jails. The lawsuit is ongoing, and the corrections department has yet to come into full compliance with any of the nine provisions of that agreement.

And yet, the civil rights groups suing the city over those conditions questioned whether a new building was going to address the challenges that have led the state to be off track with the terms of the settlement.

The state’s shortcomings in medical and mental health care, they contend, have less to do with physical limitations of the buildings and more to do with the complexities of running a health care system. Meanwhile, the number of beds proposed for the jail has been scaled down due to cost: 1,462 beds to 854.

The downsizing comes as Baltimore’s jail system is already bursting at the seams. Its facilities have been nearly at the system’s 959-bed capacity over the last several months, according to census numbers provided by civil rights groups. The population has hovered between 800 and 900 people. A recent estimate was 884 people, or 92% full.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project and a plaintiff in the health care lawsuit, called the Baltimore jail system a “train wreck of dysfunction.”

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“Building a new building is not going to fix all of the problems, by any means,” he said.

Fathi’s team has toured the facilities and noted the dire conditions of the buildings. The Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center and the accompanying detention complexes that currently make up the jail system, he said, also lack dedicated work spaces for certain nursing units, and there isn’t adequate space for mental health treatment, among other issues.

In 2022, Fathi’s National Prison Project revealed in a report that the jail was so overcrowded that men were sleeping on plastic “boats” in the gymnasium.

Photographs taken during an August tour of the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center and its medical infirmary show men in a temporary dorm sleeping on plastic "boats" in a gymnasium.
Photographs taken during an August tour of the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center and its medical infirmary show men in a temporary dorm sleeping on plastic “boats” in a gymnasium. (Court records)

There is also the looming question of who will work in the facility. The state corrections department is facing a severe staffing shortage of correctional officers, and its current private medical provider has been tied to a controversial bankruptcy case that could threaten the viability of the company.

While Fathi didn’t argue that the facilities needed improvements, he pointed out that the corrections department’s stance in Annapolis — that it needed the new jail to comply with the terms of the health care lawsuit settlement — contradicted its posture in dozens of Baltimore courtroom hearings.

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In the context of the health care lawsuit, Fathi said the state’s position has been that it was well on its way to being in compliance with the agreement, without mentioning a need for a new facility. And in the past, Fathi said, the state has argued that improvements to the jail facilities were beyond the scope of the settlement.

“I think the state needs to get its story straight,” he said.

Photographs taken during an August tour of the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center and its medical infirmary show recently painted showers with visible mold and a moldy and dusty air vent. (Court records)

Sen. Craig Zucker, who chairs a General Assembly committee that reviews the state construction budget, said lawmakers typically defer to the governor’s priorities. That said, they’ve taken note of the ballooning cost of the project.

“We’re keeping an eye on it,” said Zucker, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Zucker’s subcommittee plans to put forward a revised version of Moore’s statewide construction budget to the full Senate for consideration next week. The House of Delegates will weigh in, as well.

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A ‘humane’ detention center?

The engineering and architectural firm STV, which is designing the Baltimore jail project, has been advertising it as a “humane approach to detention center design.”

The firm says the design is based on the “three door jail” model that includes sectors for “deflection, diversion and detention that include significant medical and mental health components.”

“The facility’s housing units are conceived as therapeutic communities,” the STV website proclaims.

The corrections department said the new jail “reflects the department’s commitment to helping justice-involved individuals with serious addiction, medical and mental health issues.”

The vast majority of Baltimore’s jail population would fall under that category. At a court hearing last year, an attorney working for the state said that 60% of the population at the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center had diagnosed mental health problems.

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“The primary objective of the center is to enhance public health and public safety through a commitment to addressing treatment needs, applying evidence-based and trauma-informed practices, minimizing an individual’s justice footprint, and preserving community connections through comprehensive re-entry services,” said spokesperson Mark Vernarelli.

The 50-bed “deflection center” would house a “crisis unit featuring medically supervised withdrawal for patients referred by EMS, law enforcement, and other agencies,” Vernarelli added. “Upon completion of their treatment, the patients would be linked to community care resources.”

The exterior of the Baltimore City Central Booking and Intake Center on Feb. 6, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

In response to questions about the bed capacity being below the average daily jail population, the corrections department said that the new building is “not designed to accommodate the entire pretrial population, as there are other pretrial facilities in the immediate area.”

A jail designed to be a jail in Baltimore

The demolition and shuttering of the old city jail led to a displacement of Baltimore’s pretrial population that has resulted in lingering issues, according to advocates who closely monitor health care in the facilities.

Deb Gardner, legal director of the local nonprofit the Public Justice Center, which is also a plaintiff in the health care lawsuit, pointed out that some detainees have been transferred to state-run facilities in Jessup, “which created different problems, including lack of access to their families and lawyers.”

Gardner said the population of the city jail system has increased over the last year and consistently runs between 90 and 95% full, sometimes more.

There are also concerns that the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center is being used as a large detention center, even though it was designed as an intake and processing facility.

If the planned bed space for Baltimore Therapeutic Treatment Center were to reduce the pretrial jail population while providing more services, such as adequate medical and mental health care and substance use treatment, Gardner said, that said would be a “step in the right direction.”

“The more you have a robust pretrial services system, the less anybody needs to rot in jail while they’re awaiting their trial,” Gardner said, “Especially when you consider that the vast majority of people’s cases get dismissed.”

But the reduced capacity of the new facility appears to be more due to economic constraints, according on budget documents, which has drawn questions from nonpartisan legislative analysts. Those analysts directed the department to comment on whether the reduced bed space in the new plans would affect its ability to comply with the settlement.

Barbed wire along the exterior of the Baltimore City Central Booking and Intake Center on Feb. 6, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The Department of Legislative Services also dinged the department for quietly altering the construction phases, removing a second phase of the project that would have built out additional bed space and programming rooms without notifying lawmakers.

“While DLS is pleased to see a reasonable reduction in plans commensurate with the budget impact, DLS is concerned that the legislature was not notified that these plans were canceled, nor was the legislative analyst notified during interim informational requests,” the legislative analysis said.

Fathi, of the ACLU, viewed the reduction of bed space due to economic concerns as a bad omen.

“To the extent that the number of beds that they ultimately decided on was based not on population projections but based on economics or funding limitations, that is a recipe for failure,” he said.

“If you build a jail, you don’t want it to be overcrowded on day one.”