As the January trial date of the overcrowding suit against Prince George's county jail draws near, negotiations between prison and concrete plans for a new facility, and a task force on jail overcrowding has yet to file its report.
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the class-action suit say the capacity of the jail is 177 people. A prison spokesman says it is nearer 300. But four years after the suit was filed, the large brick building on Pratt Street in Upper Marlboro continually houses about 500 inmates. Most are awaiting trial, and the turnover is fast. Last year, about 12,000 defendants charged with offenses ranging from drunken driving to rape and murder served time there.
While the county's Department of Corrections has $5 million with which to start building afresh, the precise site has yet to be chosen. The County Council favors an Upper Marlboro site that is part of the former Marlboro race course property, on the other side of Rte. 4 from the present equestrian center. Council Chairman Parris Glendening said the recommendation was passed on to County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan six months ago. This week the executive's spokesman, Harold Smith, said no decision has been reached on a location.
Glendening said finding a site has been difficult because of money problems, and because "no one wants a jail in their backyard." The racetrack site is opposed by Upper Marlboro city officials.
"It's important that something is done before the case gets to trial," Glendening said. He said he doesn't want the courts to dictate government policy, "but we have a problem here that must be solved."
Prison spokesman Jim O'Neill, a member of the task force on overcrowding, said negotiations with the county executive about the jail site and funds are progressing well, and "it will be possible to firm up plans in the next month."
The task force, made up of county government officials, prison and judicial representatives, is examining the types of prisoners placed in the county jail, and looking into ways to reduce the number of people held behind bars, such as a work-release program, O'Neill said.
The problem of overcrowding in the jail was brought to the courts in 1977, when Raymond Lattisaw, an inmate in the Upper Marlboro jail, sued the county and a number of officials, including County Executive Hogan and Arnett W. Gaston, director of the Department of Corrections, saying conditions were so bad they were unconstitutional. The suit has since become a class-action case on behalf of all the inmates.
The suit demands damages of $50 for each day inmates have spent in the prison, and a further $150,000 for Lattisaw. At the begining of this month, Worcester County lost a class-action suit filed on behalf of prisoners in its jail. If that decision is upheld on appeal, it could cost Worcester County, or its insurance agents, $1.7 million.
Lattisaw said he was forced to sleep on the floor without a mattress at least twice, that he spent at least two months sleeping on the floor on a mattress, and that he had to sleep so close to the toilet that he was repeatedly splashed with urine. He said living conditions were unsanitary and medical attention was not readily available.
Lawyers with the Prisoners Assistance Project of Baltimore Legal Aid, who represent the prisoners, have filed a memorandum in the court, citing several conditions they say are unconstitutional. In the jail's new wing, the document says, "each cell was designed for single occupancy and each cell block has a dayroom area designed for recreation. The cell blocks contain between six and nine cells. On April 10, 1980, cell block 2E, which contained seven cells, had an official inmate count of 55."
The memorandum says the prison's educational programs are "deplorable," that health hazards cited by county health officials were not corrected, and that juveniles and other inmates subject to vicitimization were not put in separate housing, resulting in "an unnecessarily high number of homosexual rapes." It says inmates spent 23 1/2 hours of each day in their living quarters, which led to "a high level of tension."
In 1979, 160 assaults, six suicide attempts, two rapes, nine arson incidents and one escape were reported at the jail. Most of these figures were significantly higher in 1980, with 384 assaults, 12 attempted suicides, three escapes, four rapes and two rape attempts reported. "We tightened up our reporting procedure," O'Neill said.
This April, Fred O'Neal, a 25-year-old Washington man awaiting trial on a minor theft charge, hanged himself in the prison's mental observation section.
The number of inmates in the prison has remained essentially unchanged since Lattisaw filed suit. Last week, about 500 prisoners were locked in the jail and program director Jim O'Neill said there are likely to be more in future. Even when the new wing opened in 1977, he said, the prison was overcrowded. "It was overcrowded the day they moved in," he said. "We had people living in bunks in the dayroom area in the jail since we opened up."
Despite the crowding, O'Neill said, the prison "isn't a mess." Inmates have more freedoms than those in most other prisons, he added. They can use the phone 24 hours a day and can have two visitors a week. In the last two years, he said, 150 inmates earned high school diplomas. Excellent counseling programs are available, and the boxing team regularly competes outside prison walls. Some prisoners are in work-release programs, he said.
"You go into some prisons and you can cut the tension with a knife," O'Neill said. "The tension levels in this institution are not what you'd expect. The only way I can explain that is that the line staff are doing a heck of a job."
Helen McAllister, the county's acting health officer, said she is concerned about health problems caused by overcrowding. "It makes it very easy for contagious diseases to spread from one person to another," she said.
The county's Directorate of Environmental Health recently inspected the jail and tested inmates. McAllister said the tests yielded "results" but refused to say what they were. That information has been handed over to the county attorney.
McAllister said prisoners were not allowed enough open-air exercise. The prison has a yard measuring about 40 feet square. O'Neill said prisoners can use the yard about once every two weeks. But in a deposition taken this July and filed with the court, another prison official, Maj. Gerald F. Rice, said the exercise yard had never been used.
"I think it's bad," McAllister said. "Even more so when you are living belly to belly with the next person in the cell. A person can get terribly claustrophobic."
County Attorney Robert Ostrom, who called the Worcester County decision "an unfortunate result," said Prince George's defense will rest largely on "good faith," that the county is doing its best. If the county loses the suit, he said, "it could look like an awful lot of money. If we lost, it could add up in the aggregate."