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The Deplorable Conditions In Baltimore's Crowded Central Booking

A Baltimore public defender says protesters slept on slices of bread at the crowded central booking intake facility where those arrested during Monday's riots were held for two days.

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Baltimore Sun / Getty Images

A number of men react to the smell and sight of freedom after being released from central booking on Wednesday, April 29, as unrest continues following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

Most of the more than 200 protesters who were arrested in Monday's riots in Baltimore were detained for two days, without formal charges or bail hearings, while the court system closed due to violence. Baltimore public defender Marci Tarrant Johnson described the conditions in the crowded Central Booking and Intake Facility in a viral Facebook post, republished here with her permission.

I'm going to try to keep this as brief as I can, but I've been asked by several people about what happened at Central Booking today, so I'll give you guys the shocking highlights. As much as I'd like to, I can't describe the particulars of some of the more egregious arrests, due to attorney/client privilege issues. But I would like to describe the Civil Liberties violations, and the deplorable conditions which people have had to endure.

As many of you know, more than 250 people have been arrested since Monday here in Baltimore. Normally when you are arrested, you are given a copy of your charging documents. Then you must see a commissioner within 24 hours for a bail determination ("prompt presentment") and given a trial date. If you are not released after the commissioner hearing, you will be brought before a judge for a review of the bail set by the commissioner. None of this was happening, so we sent some lawyers to Central Booking yesterday to try to help. I heard, however, that only two commissioners showed up, and the correctional officers only brought about nine people to be interviewed because the jail was on a mysterious "lockdown."

Today we were divided into two groups. Some of the lawyers were assigned the task of actually doing judicial bail reviews for as many folks as they could get interviewed and docketed. I was assigned to the other group. We were the "habeas team," and we were to interview folks that we felt were being illegally detained, so we could file writs of habeas corpus. Governor Hogan had issued an executive order extending the time for prompt presentment to 47 hours. We believed that this order was invalid because the governor has no authority to alter the Maryland Rules. As a result, all people who were being detained for more than 24 hours without seeing a commissioner were being held illegally. Knowing all of this, I was still not prepared for what I saw when I arrived.

The small concrete booking cells were filled with hundreds of people, most with more than 10 people per cell. Three of us were sent to the women's side where there were up to 15 women per holding cell. Most of them had been there since Monday afternoon/evening. With the exception of three or four women, the women who weren't there for Monday's roundups were there for breaking curfew violations. Many had not seen a doctor or received required medication. Many had not been able to reach a family member by phone.

But here is the WORST thing. Not only had these women been held for two days and two nights without any sort of formal booking, BUT ALMOST NONE OF THEM HAD ACTUALLY BEEN CHARGED WITH ANYTHING. They were brought to CBIF via paddy wagons (most without seatbelts, btw — a real shocker after all that's happened) and taken to holding cells without ever being charged with an actual crime. No offense reports. No statements of probable cause. A few women had a vague idea what they might be charged with, some because of what they had actually been involved in, and some because of what the officer said, but quite a few had no idea why they were even there. Incidentally, I interviewed no one whose potential charges would have been more serious than petty theft, and most seemed to be disorderly conduct or failure to obey, charges which would usually result in an immediate recog/release.

The holding cells are approximately 10 by 10 (some slightly larger), with one open sink and toilet. The women were instructed that the water was "bad" and that they shouldn't drink it. There are no beds — just a concrete cube. No blankets or pillows. The cells were designed to hold people for a few hours, not a few days. In the one cell which housed 15 women, there wasn't even enough room for them all to lie down at the same time. Three times a day, the guards brought each woman four slices of bread, a slice of American cheese, and a small bag of cookies. They sometimes got juice, but water was scarce, as the COs had to wheel a watercooler through every so often (the regular water being "broken").

My fellow attorneys and I all separately heard the same sickening story over and over. None of the women really wanted to eat four slices of bread three times a day, so they were saving slices of bread TO USE AS PILLOWS. Let me say that again. THEY WERE ALL USING BREAD AS PILLOWS SO THAT THEY WOULDN'T HAVE TO LAY THEIR HEADS ON THE FILTHY CONCRETE FLOOR.

Interviewing these women was emotionally exhausting. Quite a few of them began crying — so happy to finally see someone who might know why they were there, or perhaps how they might get out of this Kafkaesque nightmare. These women came from all walks of life. We interviewed high school students, college students, people with graduate degrees, people with GEDs, single women, married women, mothers, the well-employed, the unemployed, black women, and white women. Almost all of them had no record. Those that did had things like DUIs and very minor misdemeanors. Our group didn't interview any of the men on the other side, but my colleagues reported very similar situations. On the men's side there were journalists and activists, as well as high school kids with no records, barely 18 years old.

As we were getting ready to leave, we heard that many of these folks might be released without charges, after being held for two days. When we returned to the office, our amazing "habeas fellow," Zina Makar, single-handedly filed 82 habeas petitions. That is when we heard that 101 people were released without charges. I'd like to think that the amazing legal response to this injustice played a large part in their release, and I feel privileged to have been a part of it. They may be charged later, but I'm guessing most of them won't, based on how minor their alleged infractions are. There are still over 100 folks in there that need to see a commissioner and/or a judge, but hopefully we have thinned the ranks a little, and we will keep fighting until everyone has received due process. (We are concerned about these folks' potential bails, as we are hearing about bails in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for misdemeanor charges.)

I'll wrap this up by reminding everyone that all lives matter. We are all human beings. And we are Americans, and as such we are afforded protections under the law, the guilty and innocent alike. If one person is denied due process, we all suffer. If one person's rights and freedoms are trampled on, it's not only a reflection on all of us, but it puts our own liberty at risk. The moment we view some individuals as more important than others, we cheapen ourselves. At the very essence of our democracy is the right to question and stand up to authority. During these trying times, we should all keep that in mind. I'll leave you with a beautiful picture that was taken today of one of the women who was released without charges. Her husband had been waiting outside CBIF trying to find something...ANYTHING out about when she might be charged or released. This was taken moments after she walked out the door....


Contact Marci Tarrant Johnson at katherine.stoeffel+marcitarrantjohnson@buzzfeed.com.

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