Baltimore: A New Billion-Dollar Jail is Not What We Need

New projections from the Maryland government show that the project to build a new Baltimore City jail will cost $1 billion, making it the most expensive state project in Maryland history. Along with a staggering increase in planned cost, the new plans also include a dramatic decrease in capacity, leading to concerns that the facility will be “overcrowded on day one.” Like other jails, as distinct from prisons, the new building will house people detained not because they are convicted of a crime, but who are awaiting their trial and considered legally innocent.

The State of Maryland has received numerous court orders in the past decade requiring it to provide better treatment and healthcare to its pretrial detainees in Baltimore, but repeated inspections have found that conditions have remained deplorable. After promising over and over again that compliance is just around the corner, the state is now claiming that the new $1 billion jail, which is being branded as a “Therapeutic Treatment Center,” is the only way to adhere to these legal requirements.

But a new building won’t fix the problems in the Baltimore jail complex—many of the violations are entirely unrelated to the physical structure. For example, the jail’s policies mean that the mental health unit operates as a solitary confinement unit, with patients allowed no visits or outdoor exercise. Understaffing and overcrowding are also well-documented problems, forcing detainees to sleep in rows on the floor of crowded rooms, and people with disabilities to endure dangerous neglect. Last year, experts conducting an inspection said that the conditions in Baltimore were “harsher than any death row or supermax detention centers” they had seen.

Sixty percent of the population at the current Baltimore jail have diagnosed mental health conditions, but it’s ridiculous for the state to argue that a new detainment facility will improve mental health treatment. A jail cell is the last place that someone suffering from mental illness belongs! As David Fathi of the ACLU explained, “the atmosphere of violence, the uncertainty, the impossibility of sleeping… the unreliability of medical and mental health care, all of these things make jail the most anti-therapeutic environment that you could possibly imagine.”

Neither deplorable treatment of incarcerated people nor the billion-dollar jail is unique to Maryland. It’s becoming commonplace for U.S. states to invest their public money into outrageously expensive prisons and jails, which end up being filled disproportionately with poor and working-class Black and Latino men. Spending another $1 billion on racist mass incarceration is not what we need. Just think of what the Maryland and other state governments could be spending this money on instead. A billion dollars—the most ever spent on a state government project in Maryland—could provide truly therapeutic care for those suffering from mental health problems or addiction, houses for those who need them, and countless more services that would make Baltimore safer and improve the quality of all our lives.