State prisoners housed in the old Prince George's County Jail have filed suit in federal court to protest "substandard and vile" living conditions in the 49-year-old Upper Marlboro institution. The jail currently holds 190 prisoners.
The lawsuit charges that conditions in the jail, which is slated for demolition, are such that inmates sleep on the floor in severely overcrowded quarters, that the heating system was inoperative on numerous occasions this winter, that mail from attorneys and public officials is opened by jail officers and that there are no recreation and work programs at the jail.
The old jail was leased to the state of Maryland by Prince George's County in December after county prisoners were shifted next door to the new county-run detention center. The old jail, which is still under county supervison, now holds state sentenced prisoners awaiting classification to other state prisons.
In 1972, Sheriff Don E. Ansell, a respondent in the suit and supervisor of the jail, said the old jail was "about as inhumane as any type of jail can be." Over the years, grand jury inquiries, special government delegations to the jail and court hearings have all noted the problem of overcrowding.
The inmates' suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore last month by six inmates who offered supporting petitions from 71 other inmates. Together the 77 represent nearly half of the inmates in the institution.
"We just want clean up the conditions of our jail," said Robert E. Early, one of the plaintiffs and organizer of the suit. Early is serving three years on conspiracy. Others filing the suit are Ernest J. Watson, serving seven years for breaking and entering; Alphonzie G. English, 10 years for breaking and entering: Willie L. Burkes, 10 years fro assault; Andrew Spriggs Sr., three years for assault, and Jimmie Lee Wilson, 10 years for false imprisonment.
Early and Wilson were recently transferred out of the jail to diagnostic center in Baltimore.
Plaintiff Watson placed a classified advertisement in The Washington Post in early March urging former inmates and family members of current inmates to join the class action.
The inmates have asked for a jury trial for the proceedings. They are seeking $6 million in compensatory damages for the individual piaintiffs and punitive damages of $2 million to go in a fund to correct the deficiencies of the detention center.
Affidavits by inmates filed along with the suit cite "overcrowded conditions with as many as 110 men sleeping in a 90-foot by 70-foot room" and "70 men using a single shower stall and one wash basin;" food "unfit for human consumption," and a general lack of recreation, rehabilitation and counseling programs at the jail.
The suit is based on grounds of denial of access to the courts, denial of equal protection and cruel and unusual punishment, and it alleges that "the petitioner is being housed in substandard living quarters and subjected to treatment so vile as to defy true comprehension by anyone not actually residing within the confines of the Prince George's County Detention Center."
It names as respondents W. Donald Pointer, deputy commissioner of the state department of public safety and correctional services; Prince George's County Sheriff Don E. Ansell, and Major James Carter, superintendent of the jail from November, 1976, to February, 1977. Pointer has filed a motion to dismiss the suit and Ansell has filed a motion to extend the time needed to answer the suit to April 4.
From affidavits filed in District Court and from an interview with Robert Early a description of prison life in the old jail is one of overcrowding, noise, frustration and a general lack of anything to do.
"Back in November, there were 110 men in a 90-by-70-foot cell," Early said. "We had to sleep in shifts, with inmates on bunks and sleeping on mattresses underneath bunks on the concrete. (Now 55 men share the dormitory.) . . . The radio goes full blast 24 hours a day with the volume level loud.
"Now the only way we get clean clothes is if our wives or mothers bring them to us. The trustees will do the wash, but only if you pay them by giving them two or three packs of cigarettes," he said.
Laundry facilities, a kitchen and medical center for the old jail are located in the new county addition adjacent to the old jail. The first part of a three-part facility, the new jail now holds 230 to 240 men, double the intended capacity.
The problem of too many men in too small a space existed in the old jail for at least 10 years. In September, more than 400 men were crowded into an area built for 77 men.
Currently the state permits a maximum of 175 men and 15 women in the facility. Ansell said this limit has been "exceeded twice by five inmates, and if that's the only time, I'd be happy."
The county plans to tear down the old jail for new additions, but until then then the state has leased the old jail to reduced severely crowded conditions in other state prisons. The state pays the county $506,933 a year, plus $2.58 a day per prisoner for basic services, including guards, food and custodial care.
In a letter to the District Court in February, Early said, "The new detention center has been opened. The only improvement (in the old jail), however, is that there are not quite as many people sleeping on the floor."
The main thrust of the inmates' complaints are about the day-to-day conditions of the jail. They say there is a sovere lack of information about court access and about jail rules and regulations which creates a climate of suspicion and mistrust between the guards and inmates.
"There is no encouragement to rehabilitate oneself here. This facility serves only to breed hate and vindictiveness," wrote one inmate.
Howard N. Lyles, chief of operations for the division of Maryland corrections, said the state has no plans to do any additional renovation of the jail. (When the state moved in, the inmates painted the blue the white walls themselves.)
"This is really a holding area, a transit area as opposed to a permanent facility," said Lyles. "We screen prisoners in our diagnostic center after they leave there and move them into other permanent facilities around the state.
"The county has to maintain the jail in a sanitary condition, with adequate food and medical facilities," said Lyles. "And the inmates are allowed telephone communications to their families. We did allow the GED (General school diploma equivalency) program other immediate programs."
The state, which used the jail as a "holding" area for some of its inmates even before the county took over, has nine months before relocating them to other state prisons. The lack of work programs and recreation programs, the inmates charge have created problems with their abilities to gain parole.
One prisoner's affidavit includes a copy of a parole board decision which reads, "the prisoner displays no interest in participating in drug programs within the institution and has really done nothing to help himself in the way of developing a work program."
The prisoner noted, "The denial was based in part on my non-participation in drug programs within the institution. There are no programs in this institution, drug or otherwise."
Harsh weather conditions this past winter apparently helped prompt the inmates to file their suit. They claim that the heating system was inoperative on numerous occasions throughout the winter.
Sheriff Ansell said that the jail had "a couple of heating problems this winter, but never for more than three or four hours at a time. We had a furnace that sprung a leak but it was fixed in four or five hours. We keep the temperature from 60 to 65 degrees in there, but with body temperature changes, it could go up to 90 degrees in the third floor of the new jail."
An inmate representative from dormitory number two of the old jail, where most of the plaintiffs are housed, wrote in an affidavit: "In summer, the windows had to stay shut because the elderly women next door complained about the noise. When the weather turned cold, the steam from the shower and the body heat of the 90 to 110 inmates collided with the cold, causing the ceiling to sweat.
"Now the water that dripped from above (the ceiling) was not only wet, but slimy being mixed with the residue that was on the ceiling."
Inmates also allege that there is insufficient medical attention at the jail. The new jail has an on-call physician and medica, 24 hours a day, which have been made available to inmates at the old jail.
One inmate stated in his affidavit that he "was incarcerated about two months before I seen the MTA doctor to take a physical." Another inmate said he had his eardrum punctured by another inmate, "to which the doctor opinioned that my wound was self-inflicted." The inmate was sent to the county hospital for treatment.
Unlike other state facilities, the detention center has no rule book or guidelines for the prisoners to follow. Inmates say this causes trouble for them with the guards.
"I was a trustee," an inmate stated in his affidavit, and one day I was ordered back into regular quarters and told I was no longer a trustee. I did inquire as to why I was being disfavored without so much as an explanation. I was told I was being argumentative and moved to a disciplinary deadlock cell," he said.
Lyle sought to assure a reporter that "I will have the superintendent develop the guidelines to be made available to them." The rulebooks are mandated by federal law.
After visiting day last week, the wife of one of the inmates said., "I don't care what they did to get in there. They've got them in there, and the least they can do is still make it clean and liveable."