Baltimore County’s director of corrections denied some assertions by Maryland public defenders that authorities are mistreating minors at the county detention center by withholding basic resources and confining them in cells for all but one hour a day.

Addressing Baltimore County’s state representatives Friday morning, Department of Corrections director Walt Pesterfield said the county did its own investigation into claims detailed in a March 6 letter from the Office of the Public Defender — that correctional officers neglect detained youths’ education, charge them for inadequate medical care, subject them to unsanitary living conditions and isolate them in cells for 23 hours a day.

He said county authorities found some allegations had merit — but flatly denied the Towson facility isolates minors for 23 hours a day.

“Quite frankly that is not accurate,” Pesterfield said. He provided no details.

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The public defender’s office is calling on the circuit court and governor’s office to immediately transfer minors from the center, which houses some minor offenders with adults, to a state facility; the office alleges Baltimore County authorities have failed to fix years-long mistreatment of minors and continues to violate federal laws protecting them and students with disabilities.

In a letter addressed to local, state and judicial officials, the public defender’s office outlined conditions at the Baltimore County Detention Center following a November site visit and made a series of allegations: Some youths sleep in rodent-infested cells. All are charged $4 for medical appointments and don’t receive necessary mental health services. Minors charged as adults are isolated in flood-prone cells nearly all hours of the day. Detained students, particularly those with individualized education plans, aren’t being properly taught. They’re exposed to incarcerated adults and neglected by correctional officers.

During the virtual meeting Friday with the county’s House delegation and some state senators, Pesterfield, a former police officer who’s held various positions in probation management for more than 30 years, argued against the allegations.

“We do have mental health services” for detained minors, Pesterfield said in response to questions from Del. Cheryl Pasteur.

“Any psychological needs [of] the individual — the youth — are addressed,” he said.

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On whether detained minors are provided adequate education, Pesterfield said “they are getting the required education of individuals in their situation” from Baltimore County Public Schools. The facility conducts mental health evaluations of all adult and youth offenders detained there, he said.

“We’re looking at even expanding that and having them even, making them get more services in that year,” Pesterfield, who was named corrections director in December, added.

But he didn’t explain which accusations the county found valid. In a March 16 letter to the public defenders, Pesterfield said while the office was “in many cases” wrong about detention center conditions, the county “identified some areas for improvement.”

The detention center houses incarcerated adults and youths charged as adults for offenses like homicide, aggravated assault and armed robbery. Minors charged with misdemeanor offenses are also held in pre-trial detention before being transferred elsewhere.

Baltimore County authorities have previously acknowledged the facility wasn’t built to accommodate minor offenders. Its former corrections director signed an affidavit in 2018 that said she and the corrections department “believe it is inappropriate to house youth at its facility because it is not equipped to properly do so, given it is an adult facility that must contend with various safety, transportation and other concerns that could negatively impact youth.”

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Advocates for minors in the criminal justice system have pointed to the detention center as an example of the need to pass legislation currently before the Maryland General Assembly that would give the state’s juvenile court more power and remove certain prosecuted minors from being processed through the circuit court.

“No child, no teenager, no person anywhere should ever be subjected to such inhuman and inhumane conditions,” said Nicole Hanson-Mundell, executive director of Out for Justice, a Baltimore-based organization that lobbies policy-makers on criminal justice reforms.

“We cannot tolerate so-called leaders who would read the findings of this report and not take immediate action,” Hanson-Mundell said in a statement.

During the hearing, Pesterfield told lawmakers about easing the facility’s coronavirus pandemic restrictions and efforts to fill nearly 100 vacancies in the corrections department — by reaching out to recruit military veterans “as well as all minorities.”

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Pesterfield said he believes improved conditions for detained minors “can be attained.”

In an email, county spokeswoman Erica Palmisano said the county executive’s office “has directed staff to evaluate the facility’s current conditions, policies, and practices, and to carefully investigate the claims raised by the OPD.”

Pesterfield told lawmakers he expects to disclose an evaluation report in 30 days.

County House delegation chair Del. Eric Ebersole requested representatives tour the detention center when the legislative session concludes.

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“That would then answer some of those questions about some of those conditions that were reported in the paper; whether or not they were accurate,” Ebersole said. “And we could see for ourselves what it is that some people are concerned about, and whether or not we share those concerns, or feel that things are in good order.”

taylor.deville@thebaltimorebanner.com

Taylor DeVille covered Baltimore County government for The Baltimore Banner with a focus on the County Executive, County Council, accountability and quality of life issues affecting suburban residents. Before joining The Banner, Taylor covered Baltimore County government and breaking news for The Baltimore Sun. 

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