The Office of the Public Defender is urging the circuit court and the governor’s office to immediately transfer minors from the Baltimore County Detention Center to a state facility, alleging Baltimore County correctional services has failed to address years of violating federal laws to protect minors and students with disabilities.

In a March 6 letter addressed to local, state and judicial officials, public defenders outlined myriad problems at the county facility, where minors charged as adults are held: rodent-infested cells, barriers to healthcare, nonexistent or inadequate schooling for various detainees, exposure to adult offenders, unhygienic conditions and isolation with little attention from correctional officers.

The detention center “is not generally equipped to handle the special development needs of youth, including those related to their physical, emotional and education well-being,” according to the letter, signed by Deborah St. Jean, director of OPD’s Juvenile Protection Division.

The public defender’s office conducted a site visit to the detention center and interviewed detained minors in November, and found that problems the office discovered during a 2018 investigation of the facility persist.

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According to the letter:

  • Newly detained minors are given no schooling, including those who have individualized education plans as federal law requires.
  • When they’re moved to a housing unit, students are schooled by a virtual online instruction program in violation of federal laws protecting students with disabilities.
  • Minors are charged $4 if they want to make a medical appointment — and the co-pay must be approved by correctional services before minors are able to see a doctor to treat an illness.
  • Minors who suffer concussions or need dental care have waited 30 days for an appointment.
  • Minors also must purchase their own hygiene products. Public defenders said minors wash their own clothing in sinks in their cells, which are regularly flooded with toilet water and debris.

The letter — addressed to county elected officials, the county’s circuit court chief and Gov. Wes Moore’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth and Victim Services — also outlined alarming conditions at the Towson detention center’s intake unit for minors.

  • During the Nov. 22 site visit, OPD said recently detained minors slept on mats on cell floors of a rodent-infested intake unit, where they have “very limited access to showers.”
  • According to the OPD, youths are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, and permitted out of them once a day to either use detention center phones or shower — “they cannot accomplish both,” the letter said.
  • And minors held at the detention center — Baltimore County says there are currently a dozen — aren’t properly separated from more than 1,000 currently detained adults, who may “walk by their cells and talk to them.”

“Lawmakers who have oversight of these children’s lives should do something about the fact that there are children sleeping on the floor in sewage,” said Jenny Egan, chief attorney of the public defender’s juvenile division.

“Legislators need to remove children from these conditions immediately,” she said.

In a response the detention center provided OPD under the Maryland Public Information Act, county detention center personnel manager Kelly Shaw described conditions not unlike public defenders’ allegations.

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Shaw wrote the $4 co-pay levied against youths is for “medical sick call appointments,” but not for “chronic care appointments nor behavior services.”

While OPD asserts youths who are detained have no access to mental health treatment, Shaw wrote that minors “receive behavior counseling and psychotropic medications when indicated.” She neglected to clarify what “behavior counseling” actually means.

Shaw’s account also refutes OPD’s claim that detainees are held for 23 hours a day; detained students, she said, attend classes for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon.

Minors are allowed out of their cells two at a time during a one-hour “allocated walk time,” which occurs “on a constantly rotating basis,” Shaw wrote.

Shaw would not respond to OPD’s request for information about the facility’s education programs, instead referring the question to Baltimore County Public Schools.

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“Our administration is carefully reviewing the letter and the concerning allegations it raised,” county spokeswoman Erica Palmisano said in a statement.

“We will closely evaluate current policies and provide a thorough response,” she said.

Little, if anything, seems to have changed within the Baltimore County Detention Center since public defenders last investigated the facility in 2018.

OPD’s findings prompted then-county corrections director Gail Watts to sign an affidavit stating detention center officials “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.”

Watts also acknowledged in the affidavit the facility’s “ongoing challenge” to provide “programming, educational opportunities and rehabilitative supports for minors charged as adults.”

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In December, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. picked Walt Pesterfield to direct the Department of Corrections. Pesterfield comes with background in juvenile justice administration.

The public defender’s office has suggested a memorandum of understanding between the detention center, county schools and the state Youth Detention Center, which houses some minors charged as adults.

Accusations against the county detention center come about a month after Maryland lawmakers installed a nationally recognized criminal justice reformist to run the state’s juvenile services system, Vincent Schiraldi.

The letter also comes as the General Assembly considers legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Jill Carter to expand jurisdiction of the juvenile court to take charge of certain prosecuted minors and remove them from being processed through the circuit court. Bills cross-filed in the House and Senate have not yet made it out of committee, and have no hearings scheduled.

taylor.deville@thebaltimorebanner.com