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Suicides, ICE Cooperation, and Racism Allegations at Maryland Jail

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler’s office, which partners with immigration enforcement, faces jail deaths and a discrimination claim from a Legal Aid attorney.

Picture of the Harford County Sheriff's Office
Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Facebook/Harford County Sheriff’s Office.

The night before Marlyn Barnes died, he spoke with another man through his cell door at Maryland’s Harford County Detention Center, located just northeast of Baltimore. He had a bail hearing the next day, and he was nervous.

On April 10, Barnes returned from the hearing looking visibly upset, according to Saiquan Brown, who was in a holding cell across from him. Brown then left for his hour of recreation. Upon his return, a guard yelled for him to get back into his cell. A correctional officer had found Barnes—who was denied bond earlier that day—in his cell, unresponsive, with a sheet around his neck.

Just three weeks later, Tommy Wayne Pardew Sr. also hanged himself in his cell while on suicide watch.

Additionally, one of Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler’s deputies is under fire for allegedly detaining a Black attorney on the basis of race. And Gahler—an outspoken supporter of President Trump’s proposed border wall—has enrolled his office in one of ICE’s most controversial federal immigration programs.

Two suicides in three weeks

Before the deaths of Barnes and Pardew, no one had died by suicide at the jail since 2013. The investigation into Pardew’s death has been closed while the Barnes investigation continues.

Despite the state’s bail reform efforts in recent years, Barnes, a father of five from Gwynn Oak, Maryland, was held without bond on first- and second-degree assault charges and violating a protective order. In 2017, the Maryland Court of Appeals enacted a rule aimed at reducing the number of people held in jail pretrial because they could not afford to purchase their release. At least one study shows the law has had the unintended consequence of an increase in judges refusing to set bail: There was an 11.6 percent increase in defendants held without bail at their first bail hearing between July 2017 and November 2017, according to a Princeton University study.

Pardew was not held pretrial, however. When he died, he was on the seventh day of a 26-day sentence for violating probation for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Erik Roskes, a forensic psychiatrist who worked in the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said jail suicides can be difficult to predict. “You can foresee it if you can identify people who are high risk versus low risk by understanding people’s history by interacting with people who know them.” He added, “Any type of court proceeding could be a high-risk period.”

Care questions

Upon entry to the jail, Pardew and Barnes were assessed by representatives from health care contractor Prime Care Medical, which has 70 sites in five states. Pardew was flagged as having “suicidal ideations” and placed on suicide watch, according to Cristie Hopkins, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office. It’s unclear how he was able to hang himself in the jail.

The detention center once housed a behavioral health unit dedicated to people struggling with mental illness but discontinued it in 2016, per a Harford County Core Service Agency report that year. The jail now runs a 10-week substance use program that offers programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Prisoners experiencing addiction are recommended to enroll in the program upon intake.

Marcus, who was incarcerated at the jail for six months in 2017, said crowded conditions there also contribute to a tense atmosphere. (His name is changed because he fears retaliation from the sheriff’s office.) He said men were crowded into a dorm room and slept on mattresses on the floor. “There’s no recreation, you can’t free the mind, you’re crowded up,” he told The Appeal.

When asked for comment, Hopkins said the office meets “all state standards for housing of inmates” and “overcrowding is not an issue.” She added that the facility has outside recreation yards, exercise equipment and employs an “exercise officer dedicated to the recreation and exercise needs of the inmates.”

Partnering with ICE

Gahler has also used his position as sheriff to assist in the deportation of undocumented immigrants. Since 2016, Gahler—who wrote a letter in January to the Baltimore Sun in support of the president’s proposed border wall—has partnered with ICE on its 287(g) program, which deputizes local law enforcement to directly investigate the status of the people they detain.

According to Hopkins, the jail spokesperson, there are 10 Harford County deputies who are cross-trained with ICE to question new prisoners about their citizenship status. If a person’s answer raises suspicion, the deputy will then alert ICE, which

determines whether to request a detainer and take the person into custody after release from the jail.

Hopkins said the jail did not receive any money from the federal government for its cooperation. “The incentive is that if people are committing crimes in Harford County, [Gahler] does not want them to be released back into the county if they’re not eligible to be released back into the county.”

In the program’s first year, a Baltimore Sun report found that the Harford County sheriff’s office alerted ICE to 44 people classified as being undocumented.

Ninety law enforcement agencies in 20 states participate in the program, which was responsible for roughly 12,000 deportations between February 2017 and May 2018. Critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, have argued that the program promotes racial profiling while diverting law enforcement resources.

Discrimination accusations

In March, Gahler’s office faced accusations of racial discrimination after a deputy detained Legal Aid attorney Rashad James in the Harford County courthouse under the belief that he was a defendant impersonating an attorney.

The deputy stopped James, who is Black, in the hallway and addressed him by his client’s name. He then asked James to produce his identification. But after James handed the deputy his driver’s license, he was escorted to an interview room, where the deputy asked for his bar association membership card and business card. The deputy then called the clerk’s office, which verified that James is an attorney.

After learning of the incident, Gahler announced that he would investigate. In an April 9 press conference, he said the deputy confused James for his client after an assistant state’s attorney with the Maryland attorney general’s office inquired about his identity. Gahler cleared the deputy of any wrongdoing and said allegations of racial discrimination were unfounded.

During the press conference, Gahler also admonished James and his attorneys, Chelsea Crawford and Andrew Freeman, for bringing attention to the incident before it was investigated and insisted that Harford County is not racist. “The world our police officers live in is grounded in facts,” he said. “We don’t get to live in a world of hyperbole and fearmongering. We understand that facts aren’t as nearly as exciting as a stirring headline.”

Crawford told The Appeal that after the incident involving James, her office received multiple phone calls from people alleging they had been discriminated against by deputies in Harford County. She added that someone who works in the sheriff’s department told her office that, internally, the department “was a racist place.” When asked for comment, Hopkins, the sheriff’s department spokesperson, referred The Appeal to Gahler’s statements during the April press conference.

Crawford also said Gahler was hostile and defensive in the press conference. “They could’ve at least said, ‘We’re sorry you felt that way,’” said Crawford. “There was no apology, no attempt to meet with Rashad and say they were sorry he went through this or he felt like he was being targeted. It was accusatory.”