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Civil War-Era Men's Detention Center At Baltimore Jail To Be Shuttered

Gov. Larry Hogan and Department of Public Safety and Correction Services Secretary Stephen Moyer at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

Gov. Larry Hogan surprised Baltimore Thursday when he announced that he’ll be closing part of the city’s jail. The Men’s Detention Center, built in 1859, houses about 750 men who will be moved to nearby facilities. The decision comes after years of scandal and lawsuits.

“The Baltimore City Detention Center has been a black eye for our state for far too long,” Hogan said.

In the latest scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center, the prisoners practically ran the place according to federal prosecutors. Dozens of inmates and their guards were indicted two years ago as part of an investigation into the gang known as the Black Guerilla Family.

“The Black Guerilla Family gang maintained a stronghold over this facility running an empire built on the trafficking of drugs, contraband and intimidation,” Hogan said in a recounting of the incident.

Ralph Johnson, a retired corrections officer at the jail who wrote a book about his experiences there, stood outside the jail. He said he was there to witness a historic moment. Johnson said there was always a level of corruption at the Baltimore City Detention Center. But he said the BGF took it to a new level.

“It was like a Fortune 500 company and they were making hundreds of thousands of dollars,”Johnson said.

Johnson said the ancient architecture made the building dangerous for officers and the conditions inside were inhumane for inmates. After the 2013 scandal, staffing and technology changes were made to cut down on corruption and contraband, but changes like that could not make the place livable, Johnson said.

Hogan won’t close the entire jail complex of two dozen buildings – just the oldest one. The Men’s Detention Center is an aging brown and gray stone fortress wrapped in barbed wire.

“It’s a civil war-era dungeon is what it is,” said Debra Gardner, legal director of the Public Justice Center. Her organization and the ACLU brought the latest legal challenge to conditions inside the jail, part of a recurring class action lawsuit over jail conditions that dates back to the 1970s. She says there’s no air conditioning. There’s routine flooding that knocks out the plumbing and electricity for days. “Vermin infestations: Rats, roaches, mice. Black flies. Black mold,” she added.

What’s more, she says: Inmates throughout Baltimore’s jail system don’t get adequate access to medical care and often go without needed medications. 

“It’s inhumane, it’s insufferable,” she said.

This decrepit building is being shut down and the inmates moved to other cell blocks in the complex and elsewhere. But Gardner hopes that won’t take the focus off other problems in the system – problems that won’t fixed by closing one old building.

Hogan said there are no plans to build a new jail. The corrections officers will be re-tasked to other facilities, and the governor said no jobs will be lost.

Christopher Connelly is a political reporter for WYPR, covering the day-to-day movement and machinations in Annapolis. He comes to WYPR from NPR, where he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow, produced for weekend All Things Considered and worked as a rundown editor for All Things Considered. Chris has a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. He’s reported for KALW (San Francisco), KUSP (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and KJZZ (Phoenix), and worked at StoryCorps in Brooklyn, N.Y. He’s filed stories on a range of topics, from a shortage of dog blood in canine blood banks to heroin addicts in Tanzania. He got his start in public radio at WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, when he was a student at Antioch College.