Court Date: Jailed Journalist Reports Inhumane Conditions for Pre-Trial Detainees

Court Date: Jailed Journalist Reports Inhumane Conditions for Pre-Trial Detainees

Baltimore Central Booking, 300 E. Madison Street. Photo source: commons.wikimedia.org
Baltimore Central Booking, 300 E. Madison Street. Photo source: commons.wikimedia.org

James MacArthur, the “Baltimore Spectator”, gives a firsthand account of how the City's detention system moves inmates from Central Bookings to the courtroom. His handwritten letter describes the overnight ritual of sleep deprivation and degrading treatment that precedes a detainee's appearance in court. MacArthur himself, repeatedly denied bail for misdemeanor charges, has been held in Central Booking since his arrest on 1 December 2012.

Preface

Dear friends,

On 9 April I was once again denied the opportunity to live life as a free American. For the second time in a row, Judge Howard in all his judicial wisdom determined that I'm too grave a danger to the public to be allowed to await trial on the outside.

While the state has yet to lay out any actual reasons as to why my Eighth Amendment rights are being denied, the creativity of the court seems to know no bounds. The latest insult came from Judge Howard when he cited the current foreclosure proceedings on my home as evidence of my being a flight risk. What Howard failed to acknowledge is this situation was one created by him and others in the so-called justice system.

After five months of no income, is it any surprise that I might have trouble paying my bills from jail? Of course, the last time I stood in front of Judge Howard, my house was not yet in foreclosure. One man had all the power to make a decision to help prevent causing excessive financial ruin, but chose not to.

At every instance, the court and its officers continue to make it abundantly clear what this whole matter is truly all about. Silencing an independent, dissenting voice of freedom. To not go along with the program is to be viewed as a threat. To question authority gets one labeled suspect.

Rather than being a hearing focused on fitness to be free, the opportunity is taken as one to sully my name and slander my character. Rhetoric is high, reality is low.

My road to freedom seems to be longer and a bit more bumpy than first imagined, but I know one day I'll make it. The truth will set me free. Your continued support brings much encouragement and inspiration. Thank you for keeping hope alive.

MACARTHUR

#2335662

300 E. Madison St.

Baltimore, MD 21202

 

Inside Central Booking

In our society, going to court is a virtually inevitable appointment everyone eventually faces, whether you're charged with a crime, or a witness to a crime. Some are victims of a crime. Then there are jurors. Still others wind up involved in civil cases, as plaintiffs or defendants. No matter how you look at it, sooner or later as an American, you'll be expected to show up in court.

To the prisoner held at Baltimore's Central Booking jail, a date in court is looked forward to with horrific dread and despair.

It all begins around 2:00 A.M. the night before when a guard wakes you up out of sound sleep, telling you to get ready for court. Never mind the courts don't open till 9:00 A.M., or that the furthest court away is only a 20 minute drive. For some odd reason, this Baltimore correctional facility feels a need to have prisoners assembled many hours before departure.

Considering the lights and TVs aren't turned off till midnight in the dormitory housing area, the practice amounts to serious sleep deprivation. The reader should note, forced sleep deprivation—recognized by the United Nations as a torture technique—is regularly used in a number of different scenarios at this institution. More details on that will have to be saved for a different story.

After donning the state-issued yellow jumpsuits and being patted down, prisoners from all three wings of the building—called towers—are assembled at “The Bridge.”

Another patdown is conducted, then the now-large group of prisoners are escorted down a long ramp into the bowels of the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC). One of the oldest, continuously operating jails in the country. With its grungy, grimy surroundings and damp dark atmosphere, the building has the ambiance of a medieval dungeon.

From freezing cold to blazing hot, temperature extremes are the norm for this ancient relic. With a massive trash room on the same level, plenty of cockroaches are even on hand to keep the prisoners company. They will spend several hours awaiting transport, under conditions rivaling a third-world Banana Republic.

Corralling the Herd

Around 3:00 A.M., one by one, as their names are called out, the prisoners are dropped into “bullpens.” The correct term is supposed to be “holding cell.” No one calls them that. From staff to prisoner, the universal term used is “bullpen.” By the time they're filled, the reason becomes quickly apparent.

Designed to properly hold about a dozen people, 20 to 30 men will soon find themselves crammed into the bullpens. Like cattle being rounded up for slaughter, it's standing room only. No drinking water and only one toilet.

A simple prospect like using the bathroom now takes on the prospect of being utterly humiliating. For the one who has to go, he'll have to drop his pants in a room full of men, with no privacy available. Making things worse, everyone is now exposed to the foul odor of bodily functions being performed in a small room, full of men, with no ventilation or air flow.

If that wasn't bad enough, now new policy has it that no toilet paper is provided. This writer literally watched a prisoner tear off the sleeve of his jail-issued jumpsuit to use as makeshift, improvised toilet paper. This after pleading repeatedly to officers for toilet paper. The pleas were all either flatly ignored, as if nothing was said, or pointedly refused.

Using clothing to wipe your behind? Desperate times call for desperate measures.

A pity this state-run institution subjects literally hundreds of men to these exact same circumstances, five days a week, Monday through Friday.

The prisoners are forced to remain in the bullpen for several hours. Nothing doing, no supervision, not going anywhere. Simply waiting to be transported to court.

Having made seven trips to court since December 1, this writer has seen and endured a lot. Once, an inmate suffering from a seizure waited an inordinate length of time as passing guards ignored the emergency pleas for help coming from his fellow prisoners. Stories abound of prisoners getting severely beaten as multiple assailants gang up on him.

At times, known rivals are readily placed together into the close confines of the bullpens. Other times, the mere proximity of so many sleep-deprived, grouchy, pissed-off criminal suspects is enough to cause spontaneous eruptions of violence. These methods have been standard procedure for years. There seems no desire or inclination to make changes.

Bound and Chained

Sometimes after 6:00 A.M., prisoners are directed to the strip search room. With an army of guards looking, orders are given to remove all clothing. Then open your mouth. Grab the genitals and lift them up. Then turn around, squat down and cough.

After the strip search, the prisoner is bound in preparation for transportation. First leg irons are applied. Then handcuffs. Then an immobilizing device known as “the box,” further restricting the hands. Finally, the belly chain, going around the body and through the handcuffs.

The metal clank of dangling chains echo through the corridor as each level of immobilization has stations with multiple guards shackling prisoners. It's all done with assembly line precision.

With chains around their feet, the prisoners hobble down the hall and they're all crowded into new, larger bullpens, that are even more overcrowded. Up to 100 men are jammed into a room that's probably designed to humanely hold one-fourth as many. Again, it's standing room only. Only this time you're bound and chained. The waiting continues.

About 7:00 A.M., five hours after being awakened to get ready, prisoners are escorted onto various vans and buses to finally be transported to court. In a way they resemble school buses, except the driver and monitors are armed with automatic pistols.

At the Court House

The main bullpen at the Mitchell Courthouse downtown is one funky, filthy place. When this writer was first there, only one of the two toilets was functioning. The other was filled to overflowing with feces and urine. Naturally these are located in plain view. Again there's no drinking water.

By the time a prisoner arrives in a courtroom to face a judge, he's sleep-deprived, bleary-eyed and possibly dehydrated. All dignity is lost. After all he's been through he feels totally dehumanized standing there in his yellow jumpsuit. Every step he takes, the clinks and clank of his chains can be heard. Nothing about how he appears looks innocent. As such, this is conveyed to how he feels as well. From the start all the way through, the accused that's a prisoner stands in sharp disadvantage compared to a free man coming to court.

While we're told judges are supposed to be impartial and see past all this, something about the tendency and prejudices of human nature makes one wonder.

Evidence suggest an increase in the numbers of people in Baltimore charged with a crime being held in custody. Many of the offenses can hardly be considered serious or threats to public safety.

This writer has interviewed several individuals being held without bail, on drug possession charges as small as two pills. Conversely, some individuals with histories of actual violence seem to be able to get bail repeatedly.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to give in-depth treatment to the subject of pretrial detention, it is the hope of the writer that some light may have been shed on a process that is now all too familiar and routine in its inhumane disregard for human rights and dignity.

MacArthur was denied bail once again at a hearing on April 9. His  trial is scheduled for Wednesday May 8, 2:00 PM in Room 556 of Clarence Mitchell Courthouse. A vigil in support of MacArthur is planned for Friday May 3, 4:00 PM outside of Central Booking.

A.F. James MacArthur hosts his own media project under the name The Baltimore Spectator.