This article is part of MACo’s Deep Dive series, where expert analysts explore and explain the top county issues of the day. A new article is added each week – read all of MACo’s Deep Dives.
The first deep dive installment of the Detention Dilemma series gave a broad overview of local detention centers: what they do and, as importantly, what they do not do. A podcast episode explored this topic even further with the expert professional input of Director Brandon Foster of the Charles County Detention Center. This content ultimately portrays the major differences between state and local correctional facilities. This initial context is foundational to part two of the series – to now discuss specific policies and proposed legislation from recent years. This second article and podcast will look at well-intentioned legislative proposals that fail to grasp an understanding of the scope of local corrections and variances at work across jurisdictions.
This deep dive will troubleshoot some of those recent policy proposals to alter requirements for local detention centers and the types of implementation challenges they represent for counties who are providing these services for their communities. A better understanding of these barriers will hopefully inform policies that grapple with the realities in local facilities. These corrections leaders strive everyday to keep inmates and staff members safe and cared for. Policies that supplement these efforts can and will help make those services even better if they can acknowledge, appreciate, and work within the challenges. For the purpose of this article, most of the proposals can be lumped into two categories: housing and services.
Housing requirements are a common topic for legislation, and this is at the local, state, and federal level. In Maryland the last couple years there have been bills specifying where and how certain categories of individuals can be housed. Most often the barriers that present themselves in these circumstances are spacing and staff, pure and simple.
Local detention centers are, in general, significantly smaller than state facilities and originally designed for safely housing men and women, with few other specifications. Some of the buildings are decades old, and have already installed a number of additional wings, expanded medical units, temporary buildings for new services, and so on. And mostly with tax payer dollars. A lot of patchwork over the years, has maxed out the functional capabilities of many of the current facilities.
Important changes have been and continue to be under way when it comes to appropriate housing for a number of categories of detainees, including but not limited to male, female and non-binary juveniles, individuals with severe mental illness, pregnant inmates as well as transgender and intersex communities. Local facilities go to great lengths to make as many accommodations as can be managed within the existing walls and staff. County facilities even regularly collaborate with each other on transferring detainees to other jurisdictions that have a greater number of the given category in order to avoid isolation. And in many instances, where it is possible, facility, policy, and staff adjustments are made.
With the number of changes already implemented at many of these facilities, they are, frankly, running out of room and staff to keep adjusting, especially in the wake and current of the staffing crisis. The challenges are met with great effort, yet sometimes the requirements of a bill specifying things like restrictive housing standards, juvenile placement, and transgender placement run up against the threshold that is already at capacity on resources, space, and staff. This is not to say these changes are not incredibly important and necessary in some instances, but more to show that implementation will require a lot more than mandating even more bandaids on aging policies and infrastructure. It demands a larger and more collaborative approach.
Legislation often requires a certain type of service be provided to inmates. These can be medical, educational, physical, etc. Food standards, access to communication with children, access to educational and legal resources, access to specified treatments and so on are all considered. When it comes to how functional some of these policies are within the walls of county facilities, staff and building capacity matter, but even more often bills will present redundancies that can confuse prior legislation.
This was the case in Maryland for a recent bill that was specifying substance use disorder assessment and treatment for pregnant inmates, with a list of standards and protocols for managing the program. Multiple pieces of legislation from about six years earlier laid out parameters for dealing with all inmates with a substance use disorder. When redundancies of concept get codified with variances in the line-by-line directives, they can present confusion and contradiction for the teams carrying out the work on the ground. Irregularity in execution for things protected by law, such as the needs of disabled inmates, presents the potential for unintentional legal issues and lawsuits.
Many of these laws that would duplicate existing efforts are often well-intentioned but lack a full appreciation for what the current and codified standards are in these facilities. This is true of legislation recently that was intending to adjust the food standards in detention centers. The Maryland Correctional Administrators Association had submitted a succinct and informative response that covered, line-by-line almost, what those existing standards are. It was clear in some of the bill language, and the redundancies, that the requirements in the current COMAR standards were potentially unknown or not considered.
There are certainly some improvements that can be made legislatively that would help counties provide even better services for residents when it comes to the operation of local detention centers. Experts know this really hinges on communicating early and often with stakeholders. This helps ensure the interests and challenges are presented early in the process and worked through to the degree possible. Sharing all perspectives before legislative session begins, both positive and negative reflections, could certainly produce policies that are practical and promote better services across all jurisdictions. In coming weeks, look out for another Detention Dilemma installment discussing the medication-assisted treatment mandate for local correctional facilities in Maryland.