The Worst City Government

In the Baltimore City Jail, getting sick can be a death sentence.

You don’t have to be a big city government to waste money like one. Take the three-stoplight metropolis of Hightstown, New Jersey, for instance. In 1987, safety-conscious officials of the 4,200-resident town decided to purchase a singular, state-of-the-art fire truck whose ladder can reach blazes up to 135 feet in the air—one of the tallest firemobiles in the country, and one of the most expensive. True, the modest city didn’t have on hand the $536,000 it needed to buy the vehicle—so it floated a bond, raising the cost by tens of thousands of dollars.

It’s well worth the price to the members of Hightstown’s all-volunteer fire department: They are so proud of the bright red engine that they pilot it through parades all over New Jersey. The high-finished ladder alone has garnered more than 500 trophies in fireman’s association competitions. It hasn’t, however, made any appearances at towering infernos. There aren’t any. The tallest building in Hightstown is 35 feet high. Which is just as well, since a former volunteer admits that most Hightstown firefighters are too scared to climb the ladder.

An hour away in skyscraper-thick New York City, the tallest ladder extends only 107 feet. Ample, says a fire department spokesman, for New York City, which averages about 12 fires an hour—what Hightstown, coincidentally, averages a year.

It’s dangerous enough to be sick these days at Baltimore’s public hospitals. But as Stanley C. Mills would tell you, if he had lived to tell you, it’s better than being sick at Baltimore City Jail.

In December 1988, Mills, imprisoned for stealing a pair of sweat socks from a downtown store, was diagnosed by prison doctors as suffering from a common cold. In fact, he was suffering—make that dying —of AIDS-related symptoms. In the days before his death, he reportedly experienced massive bleeding and severe head and neck pain. But that didn’t earn him the right to see a doctor.

According to a stinging Baltimore grand jury report released last year, several of the jail’s officials pleaded that Mills be seen by a doctor, but the jail’s medical director declined to see him for six days, saying the case was not a real emergency. On December 12, Mills was rushed to Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he died of meningitis the following afternoon.

At the time of Mills’s death, the jail’s medical services were provided under a multimillion dollar contract with Prison Health Services Inc. Mills’s “attending” physician was PHS’s medical director, Dr. Jerry B. Hunt. Last fall’s grand jury report confirmed that Hunt failed to care properly for Mills—a misdeed one correctional official attributed to “a paperwork flow problem.” Medical records for prisoners were so chaotic, the grand jury com- plained, that it was impossible to tell how—or if—sick inmates were being treated.

Although internal reports obtained by Baltimore’s Sun papers reveal that jail employees were complaining about Mills’s treatment less than 24 hours after his death, City Jail Commissioner Barbara Bostick remained a staunch defender of Dr. Hunt for months, refusing to remove or transfer the doctor until the grand jury report forced her into action. A subsequent Sun investigation suggested the source of Bostick’s faith: In June 1989, the jail commissioner bought a $49,000 Mercedes-Benz with Dr. Hunt. A few months later, the two were married.

Esteemed Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke has declined to investigate the cozy relationship between the doctor and his overseer. Instead, he recently sanctioned a $9,000 salary increase for Bostick. “She’s worth every bit of it, as far as I’m concerned,” he told reporters.

The mayor did, however, give PHS its pink slip, appointing a fresh set of physicians to the beleaguered city jail. The new doctors immediately rushed nine sick prisoners to the hospital—including one who had been languishing in jail with an unhealed gunshot wound in his liver.

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