BALTIMORE – Maryland's governor announced plans Thursday to immediately shut down Baltimore's state-run jail, where inmates and guards ran a criminal conspiracy inside vermin-infested, 19th-century walls and thwarted decades of attempted reforms.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said the state would save $10 million to $15 million a year by closing the Baltimore City Detention Center, which houses hundreds of inmates awaiting trial or serving short sentences. Current employees and inmates will be reassigned to other facilities, he said.
"There is plenty of capacity elsewhere in the system to meet this need," Hogan said. "Given the space that we have, it makes no sense whatsoever to keep this deplorable facility open."
While standing by the crumbling building where inmates could be heard shouting, Hogan sharply criticized his predecessor, former Gov. Martin O'Malley, for failing to take stronger action to prevent corruption at the facility and not closing it sooner. O'Malley is now seeking the Democratic nomination for president.
"Maryland taxpayers were unwittingly underwriting a vast criminal enterprise run by gang members and corrupt public servants," Hogan said. "Ignoring it was irresponsible and one of the biggest failures in leadership in the history of the state of Maryland."
A sweeping federal indictment in 2013 exposed a sophisticated drug- and cellphone-smuggling ring involving dozens of gang members and correctional officers at the jail. The investigation also exposed sexual relations between jailhouse gang leader Tavon White and female guards that left four of them pregnant.
Forty of the 44 defendants charged in the racketeering conspiracy were convicted, including 24 correctional officers. Thirty-five defendants pleaded guilty; eight defendants went to trial and one defendant died. White pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
The ACLU and the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center last month called on a federal judge to reopen a lawsuit against the state of Maryland over what the agencies described as substandard conditions.
According to the lawsuit, the jail's medical and mental health care possibly played a role in the death of seven inmates over the last couple of years. The groups allege inmates suffering from illnesses such as HIV and diabetes were denied life-sustaining prescription medication. The filing also described moldy showers, cells infested with mice and cockroaches, poor ventilation and broken toilets.
The agencies also said the state failed to cure systemic problems since taking control 25 years ago, despite entering into a 2007 agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
In response, Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Stephen Moyer said he was committed to changes. He noted the state has spent more than $58 million over the past 10 years to improve the safety and security of inmates and staff.
David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, said closing the facility would be a positive step, though he expressed concern about how hundreds of inmates would be transferred. For security reasons, their destinations will not be disclosed in advance.
"Given the jail's history of dysfunction we're concerned about implementation, where the prisoners will go and if that will generate crowding in other facilities," Fathi said. "We've consistently seen problems that when detainees are transferred from one facility to another, the ball often gets dropped with regard to their health care, sometimes with serious consequences."
The state has run the jail since 1991 and says it is one of the largest municipal jails in the country. Parts of the complex, which also has wings housing women and juveniles, date to 1859. Only the men's detention center is being closed. The men's facility had 841 pre-trial detainees on Thursday. About 750 are expected to be moved, because other buildings in the complex could accommodate some, said Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections.