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What it’s like for teens in the Baltimore County jail

Earlier this month, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender raised concerns about conditions at the Baltimore County Detention Center for youth charged as adults — issues ranging from a lack of education to rodent infestations.

WYPR reporter Rachel Baye got a firsthand look at those conditions this week during a tour of the jail, and she spoke with Ashley Sterner to share what she saw.

Sterner: Rachel, let’s get straight down to it. Did your visit confirm the allegations that the Public Defender’s Office had made?

Baye: The short answer is my visit backed up some of what the public defender’s office described, but in other ways, what I saw differed substantially from their allegations.

For example, one of the major concerns raised by the public defenders is that the juveniles at the jail are confined to their cells 23 hours a day and are only released for about an hour a day to shower and make phone calls.

However, when I approached the unit where boys are held, the boys were in the common area on the unit, known as the “dayroom,” working with a teacher from Baltimore County Public Schools. I was told that the boys typically have class and eat their meals in that area.

In fact, I was told that the children typically spend at least two and up to nine hours a day outside their cells.

Sterner: You mentioned the boys had class. What kind of class is this? The public defenders, both in their letter and in your previous reporting, had said children at the jail attend school virtually, via computers in their cells. It sounds like this does not match what you saw.

Baye: I asked about that. Baltimore County Department of Corrections Director Walt Pesterfield started in the job this past January, and he said the way the jail has handled school is something he is trying to change. But it sounds like schooling was at least partially provided via virtual instruction until recently.

Sterner: You said some of what you saw did align with the concerns raised by the Public Defender’s Office. Tell us more about that.

Baye: When youth first arrive at the jail, they spend five days in quarantine in the Intake Unit, and conditions in this unit do seem to fit with what the public defenders described.

Their letter says while in the intake unit, juveniles spend 23 hours a day in their cells, without access to any education, and are only let out for brief periods to shower or make phone calls. It also says juveniles sleep on mats on their cell floors. My visit confirmed all of that.

Pesterfield made a point to show me where the inmates sleep. It was a blue mat, maybe a couple inches thick, like something you might see at a gym, and it sat on a plastic green tray. Pesterfield called it a “floor bed.”

Sterner: The public defenders’ letter also heavily emphasized that juvenile and adult inmates are not fully separated, as required under federal law. What did you see on that front when you were there?

Baye: In the intake unit, youth are held in cells with a solid metal door with a small glass window. Their window looks out on what resembles a waiting room, where adult inmates sit while waiting to be processed and assigned to a unit. There are also cells on the intake unit that house inmates going to and from court.

The person leading my tour, Major David Greer, said the staff “lock down” all adults in the area before letting youth out of their cells to shower or make calls.

But the rest of the time, juvenile inmates can still see out of that small window in their cells, and adult inmates can see in. In fact, while I was standing there, a boy in one of the cells was watching my tour through that window.

Sterner: Is there separation between kids and adults in other parts of the jail?

Baye: Yes and no. There were no adult inmates in the unit where the teenage boys are housed.

However, on the day I visited, there was just one teenage girl at the jail. Pesterfield said keeping her in a unit by herself would amount effectively to solitary confinement. Instead, she was in a unit with adult women inmates.

Sterner: But wouldn’t that violate federal law to keep her in a unit with adults?

Baye: One of the main laws at issue is the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA. It requires youth and adults to, “maintain sight and sound separation.” That means children and adults should not share any common spaces, including the dayroom or showers. So yes, on the surface, it seems that the Baltimore County Detention Center is violating this.

But Pesterfield said the jail doesn’t have to follow the law because it doesn’t receive federal funds.

Pesterfield: It's a best practices. And so that's one thing that we, since I've been here, we're trying to look to make sure that we're doing best practices and complying the best we can with those with those mandates.

Baye: He said he would prefer juveniles not be detained at the jail at all.

Sterner: He would prefer they not, but does he or even the jail have any say in that?

Baye: No. Anytime a minor is charged as an adult, they go to an adult jail. A judge can order them to go to a juvenile detention facility while they wait for their trial, but it’s up to the judge.

I asked Pesterfield whether he would consider talking to the judiciary and urging them not to send youth to the jail, and he said that’s a conversation he has already had with a judge in the last couple of weeks — since the Public Defender’s Office sent their letter. But he said he wasn’t sure whether anything will actually change, at least without a change in the law.

Sterner: Did you talk with the Public Defender’s Office about what you saw? How do they explain the discrepancies from their letter?

Baye: The letter was based on interviews and conversations with their clients — the youth at the jail — rather than seeing the facilities firsthand. However, a spokeswoman for the office emphasized that they fully believe their clients. In a written statement, she said they had expected their letter and the media coverage it received to prompt improvements.

Yet, “we do not believe conditions on a pre-scheduled and pre-arranged publicity tour are reflective of the full picture of conditions that our children are enduring. We hope the facility will be pressed to follow up with documentation and proof that these improved practices will continue when the spotlight turns away.”

The Baltimore County Executive’s office is also investigating the allegations in the letter. A spokesperson for that office said they plan to complete that investigation by mid-April.

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