Seeing is Believing
By Janet Stidman Eveleth
They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
So is first hand observation. I read about the devastating conditions of
the courthouses, but seeing for myself was a real eye opener. It truly
illustrates the severity of the situation.
On November 3, the Honorable Marcella Holland
and Frank Norris, a Building Maintenance Supervisor for the city courthouses,
personally took me and MSBA Legislative Director Richard Montgomery on a "behind
the scenes" and "not so behind the scenes" tour of the Mitchell Courthouse
and Courthouse East. We started in Courthouse East. After an incredibly long
wait for the 60-year-old elevators – three out of four were actually
working that day – several arrived, jammed to capacity. We finally
gave up and took the official judge’s elevator up to the fourth floor.
As state leaders
to the Baltimore City
perhaps they will be
inspired by a "behind
the scenes" tour?
There, we saw the room where the roof fell in,
literally, on an employee two years ago. There are still holes in the ceiling,
and plywood covers part of the floor, which is less than secure when one
walks on it. There are holes in the plaster, peeling walls, and overall it
is still a mess and not in use.
Next, we visited cramped, very hot offices, including
a former vault that now functions as a small, claustrophobic office. "The
public comes into these areas to conduct business, too," Holland stated.
Proceeding to the top floor, we saw where the
leaks in the beautiful ceiling still occur and the paint on the walls in
the magnificent hallways still regularly peels from water leaks. Many of
the files in the storage areas have been badly damaged by water over the
years, and although all of the asbestos has supposedly been removed, the
employees wonder. Don’t even think about getting a drink of water – the
water fountains have been shut off because there is lead in the water, and
bottled water must be brought into the building for employees.
On the day we visited, it was pleasantly warm
outside and unbearably so in most rooms. Holland showed us several very small,
tight courtrooms where the defendant is literally sitting right next to (almost
on top of) the jury box. Murder trials are actually conducted in these courtrooms.
In the courtroom clerk’s office, individuals actually sit two people
to one desk.
Next we proceeded to the basement, where the
judicial garage is housed. In my opinion, this poses the most dangerous,
insecure area of all for the judges, who park their cars in the underground
garage where prisoners are being unloaded and loaded into prison vans, literally
several feet away. This is a potentially explosive situation and quite dangerous,
with only one security guard to maintain control over the entire area. Plus,
the prisoners are able to match judges with cars and license plate numbers – not
a comforting scenario.
Then we crossed the street and went over to the
Mitchell Courthouse, where we saw more of the same. This courthouse is known
for its "sick courtroom" which is assumed to be responsible for several judges
suffering upper respiratory ailments. We saw more cramped, very warm office
spaces and a very tight juror waiting room. Holland also showed us the poor
design of various suites and how she is coping in an attempt to accommodate
them to meet the needs of new judges’ chambers. There is inadequate
space in both buildings.
In our travels, we saw very little security and
even fewer deputies. However, we did see many prisoners, accompanied by correctional
officers, walking down the hallways along with members of the public, jurors,
attorneys and judges. Surprisingly, one of the main lockups is opposite the
public elevators, meaning that prisoners are escorted in right past public
waiting areas. Street pedestrian traffic must be stopped for this parade
of prisoners, too. And the antiquated security in both courthouses consists,
at best, of a metal detector at each courthouse entrance in both buildings
manned by deputies. Modern security equipment, like x-ray machines for packages,
is in limited use at only one entrance.
As state leaders consider solutions to the Baltimore
City courthouse crisis, perhaps they will be inspired by a "behind the scenes" tour?
Janet Stidman Eveleth is the Director of Communications
for the Maryland State Bar Association.