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At Baltimore County jail, youth held in rat-infested, sewage-flooded cells, public defenders say

Outside the Baltimore County Detention Center.
Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner
Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner
Outside the Baltimore County Detention Center.

Youth charged as adults and held at the Baltimore County Detention Center face unsanitary and dangerous conditions that violate multiple federal laws, according to a new report by the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.

The children are held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, Deborah St. Jean, director of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Juvenile Protection Division, described in a letter this week to county, state and federal officials.

She wrote that cells are regularly flooded with “contaminated toilet water and debris” and infested with rodents. The youth also have limited access to medical care, laundry, and showers.

The details stem from a visit lawyers with the Juvenile Protection Division made to the jail in November.

“Many of the students expressed that they've been feeling depressed, had trouble sleeping,” said Alyssa Fieo, one of the lawyers who spoke with children at the jail. “They wanted time out of their cells. They wanted to interact with other youth, other students.”

If the children were held at a juvenile detention facility instead of the adult jail, they would have those sorts of interactions with their peers, Fieo explained.

Children who are charged as adults can be held in adult jails pending trial, though federal laws require them to be kept separate from adults in those facilities. In Maryland, that often means they are held in solitary confinement.

However, state law “discourages” even children charged as adults from being held in adult facilities, St. Jean wrote in her letter. She cites a rule directing courts to send juveniles to juvenile facilities unless they are released while awaiting trial, the Department of Juvenile Services lacks capacity for the children at its facilities, or the court determines that sending the children to juvenile detention centers would create a safety risk.

St. Jean urged the county to immediately transfer all youth at BCDC to juvenile facilities.

There were at least 19 youth at the jail as of Thursday, according to Jenny Egan, who leads the Office of the Public Defender’s juvenile division in Baltimore City.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski’s administration “is carefully reviewing the letter and the concerning allegations raised and will closely evaluate current policies and provide a thorough response,” spokeswoman Erica Palmisano wrote in an email.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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