Public defender's office, warden reach agreement to resume virtual attorney visits at Harford county jail

·3 min read

May 7—Attorneys representing the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and the warden of the Harford County Detention Center agreed to resume virtual visitation between public defense attorneys and inmates at the jail with some conditions after a Thursday hearing.

Virtual conferences between attorneys from the public defender's office and their clients will be held between 8 and 11 a.m. each morning court is in session, with priority given to defendants scheduled for bail review hearings.

The virtual visits had been suspended since early April, when Warden Daniel Galbraith citing security and manpower concerns, according to complaint the public defender's office filed in Harford County Circuit Court. Previously, detention center staff were required to join a Microsoft Teams meeting at the beginning of the day and end it when the visits with public defender attorneys concluded, the complaint stated.

Under the new agreement, attorneys from the public defender's office can virtually meet with up to 10 defendants a day. If there are more than 10 scheduled for bail reviews, the office can virtually meet with those clients but will not see other defendants on that day.

The settlement also states that the detention center will notify the public defender's office to any client who has testified positive for COVID-19 or has been exposed to the virus.

Judge Barbara Kerr Howe, who approved the agreement, praised both sides for reaching a compromise at the Thursday hearing.

"I think you have made accommodation for both [sides]," Howe said.

When Gov. Larry Hogan's state of emergency is lifted, both sides will come back to discuss the agreement again, the document states. If either side wants to modify the agreement, and they are unable to agree to terms, they will have to go before Howe to settle the dispute.

"We are glad that the matter was settled," District Public Defender for Harford County Kelly Casper said after the hearing.

The public defender's office contended that the virtual meeting system attorneys used to communicate with their clients in the jail since January was cut off April 5.

The change, the office argued, "unreasonably infringes" defendants' rights to counsel, put its attorneys at risk and gave wealthier people greater access to representation than indigent clients that the public defender's office represents.

In a response to the complaint, attorneys for Galbraith said the correctional deputies had issues with the telecommunication system disconnecting throughout the day. When it did, they had to reboot the system, requiring Galbraith to assign staff to fix it and interfering with their regular duties at the jail.

According to the complaint, one inmate who was positive for COVID-19 was brought to visit with their public defender in-person. The attorney was not notified of their client's COVID status or a change in housing to the dormitory for inmates who tested positive for the virus, according to the complaint.

Casper said that attorney learned of their client's COVID-positivity mid-conversation.

The complaint also contended that virtual visits are not substantially different from in-person visits and could be allowed.

Inmates can provide an attorney's phone number to the detention center to place unmonitored calls from the jail, but that inmate's commissary account is charged for every minute he or she is on the phone, the complaint states, giving wealthier clients more access to their attorneys. Those calls are also not private; the area where they are placed is accessible to other inmates.