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Is Baltimore’s Central Booking our Abu Ghraib?

Published May 31, 2005 10:30 PM

Is Baltimore’s Central Booking our Abu Ghraib?

Raymond Smoot's niece,
Donnetta Kidd, publicly
condemns uncle's beating
death and asks for answers.

That was the question on the minds of many at a recent community meeting. They were there to plan protests against both the brutal beating death of Raymond Smoot at the hands of guards at Central Booking and the police policy of ‘zero tolerance.’?

Over the past two years approximately 1.2 prisoners have died every month at Baltimore’s Central Booking, the city’s intake jail.

Prisoners have been denied medical care.

Crowded community meeting plans
protest to denounce prison and
police killings in Baltimore.

Cells designed for seven to eight prisoners are holding 17 to 18.

Conditions are so overcrowded that those jailed have been forced to lie in vomit.

The Baltimore City Police Department’s policy of ‘zero tolerance’? has compounded the problems with neighborhood sweeps and indiscriminate arrests. There is now a police quota of arrests per officer and per district, which encourages harassment and arrest.

Some 100,000 people have been arrested out of a population of approximately 650,000. Thirty-three percent of those arrested have never been charged with a crime.

Police have recently erected video cameras in business areas throughout the city, increasing the police-state atmosphere. They're also stopping cars indiscriminately for searches.

Close to 80 people crowded into the All Peoples Congress hall May 26 to discuss mobilizing protests on June 14--a month after Smoot’s death--and to formulate demands.

Family members of victims of both jail and police killings described their anguish and anger, and offered each other support.

Donnetta Kidd, a niece of Raymond Smoot, spoke from the podium while another family member held her infant daughter.

She said: ‘I’m one of the youngest in the family but I’m also the most vocal. I’m not going to pretend I come from a white picket fence neighborhood. I have been clean for 10 years now. But one thing is our family sticks together and we want answers.’? Those who had gathered in the hall stood and applauded.

She and her family have gone on a crusade to win justice. Kidd held up documents that she found and printed while searching the internet about conditions at Central Booking, where her uncle was beaten to death.

The Smoot family was offered support by Renee Washington and Mary Jackson, family members of Joey Wilbon. Baltimore police beat and killed Wilbon five years ago. He was taken to the same Central Booking but turned away because of his condition.

Washington, who was engaged to Wilbon and is an organizer with the All Peoples Congress, said: ‘We want answers from the mayor and the governor. Zero tolerance means death. Even if you are sitting on your step you can be hauled down to Central Booking. We need to go into the neighborhoods and keep the heat on.’?

Jackson spoke quietly but emphatically about the killing of her son, Wilbon, and urged the Smoot family to write every conversation down. ‘If it wasn’t for the support of the people here in the All Peoples Congress, I couldn’t have made it. You have our support.’?

David Schwartz broke down in tears while holding up a picture of his sister, Debra Epifanio, and her infant daughter. Epifanio died six months ago at Central Booking. Schwartz explained that his sister had been denied medication and that the left side of her body appeared beaten. The official cause of death was meningitis.

He said: ‘Debby was only 34 years old but had the mind of a 12-year-old. She had no insurance. They cut off her disability. She had a small baby. She tried to make $15 to eat and she got arrested.’?

Levern Blackmon, a legal assistant with the Public Justice Center, which has been advocating for prisoners’ rights, presented 17 pages listing those who had died recently at Central Booking. The Public Justice Center has been fighting for adequate medical care for all inmates.

Darren Mohammed, a local leader of the Nation of Islam and a radio commentator with WOLB-1010 talk radio, was applauded when he invited Amnesty International to Baltimore.

He exclaimed: ‘This is not Johannesburg, South Africa! This is not Abu Ghraib!’?

Mohammed also said he had met with Vanguard Justice, which gave him copies of documents proving that Baltimore police are forced to make quota arrests. ‘We need to stop them from getting to Central Booking,’? he said of ‘zero tolerance’? and police quotas.

State Sen. Verna Jones offered her support for Smoot's family. She said the FBI had begun an investigation and now all information was sealed. ‘Even state officials cannot get information.’?

Both Eric Easton and Andre Powell, who co-chaired the meeting, proposed actions and a list of demands that were greeted with shouts of approval. Easton, who is a longtime community organizer from Baltimore’s Westside and the All Peoples Congress, called for a citywide protest on June 14.

Powell, a union activist and organizer with the All Peoples Congress, presented the following demands: justice for Raymond Smoot and all victims; end abuse and killings at Central Booking and city jails; stop police brutality and killings; end ‘zero tolerance,’? police sweeps and quotas; an independent people’s investigation; jobs, education and health care, not jails and war.