Prisons are particular incubators for the spread of disease — and the Hogan administration this week suspended visits to inmates in 20 state-run correctional facilities.
But in a departure from previous policy, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services will allow inmates to make free phone calls and will also allow them to communicate with their families through video chatting services.
“We recognize the tremendous importance of visits and family contact,” said Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Robert L. Green. “But it is critical for the health and well-being of our employees and those in our custody that we protect them. This is a human event, and we need to do everything possible to ensure that families can communicate.”
If the virus makes it into any prison that houses large numbers of inmates, experts predict the contagion will spread like wild fire. As a result, local hospitals and medical centers could become overwhelmed.
“Correctional facilities — jails, prisons and detention centers — are the perfect breeding ground for the spread of infectious diseases of any kind — viral, bacterial, fungal, etc.,” said Lipi Roy, a clinical assistant professor at New York University’s Department of Population Health, who worked at the women’s jail at Rikers Island in New York City.
Whether all local jails in Maryland, which operate independent of the state, follow suit on the visitation policy remains to be seen.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) said this week that he is letting those local governments make their own decisions on how to respond to potential community spread.
As of late Friday, officials from the Baltimore County and the Montgomery and Prince George’s county Corrections departments confirmed that they too will suspend inmate visitations from family members and friends temporarily. In some facilities, exceptions are made for attorneys. Prince George’s, like the state, is working to make phone calls free.
A spokeswoman from Montgomery County said officials have implemented some of the same procedures adopted by the state, such as limiting inmate movement, discontinuing visiting and completing extra cleaning at all facilities.
“[We] have introduced a screening questionnaire at our intake facility (Montgomery County Detention Center) to identify any travel outside of the U.S. within the last 30 days as well as exposure to anyone with COVID-19,” said Angela Talley, director of the Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation.
Maryland prisons housed nearly 19,000 inmates last year, according to the state Department of Corrections. An additional 2,340 inmates, on average, were housed in five additional state-run detention facilities — or local jails — in Baltimore.
However, another 11,000 inmates are housed in local Maryland jails across the state, which are operated by local governments. Local jails are short-term facilities where pre-trial inmates or those waiting to be transferred to state or federal institutions are housed.
Many jails, also, only have a small number of beds in their infirmaries.
“We refer to local hospital any time the health care needs extend beyond that the on-site health care staff can provide,” Talley said. “We follow a community standard of practice so if someone needs hospitalization for service we will arrange transport to the hospital.”
The Baltimore County Correctional Institute, which houses 1,500 inmates, has fewer than 15 sick beds. Montgomery County’s facility in Boyds has only 28.
These small medical facilities within local jails can also be incubators for disease.
“It is particularly dangerous in terms of the community contagion because of all the short stays,” said Nancy Fishman, project director of the Vera Institute of Justice. “There are no resources for testing, no ability for proper hygiene. In jails you can have people coming into the community for one or two days, in a tight space, from all over. Then they’re sent back out to the community. If you want to spread a communicable disease, jails are a great way to do it.”
As of Friday, Maryland officials reported 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19, but Hogan said the numbers are expected to rapidly increase.
Even with the clamp-down on visits to state prisons, the establishment of free phone calls is a potentially significant development. Inmates’ rights activists have long complained about the financial burdens placed on Maryland inmates who want to make calls from prison; it isn’t clear whether the change in policy is merely temporary or will become permanent.
Department of Corrections officials would not provide specifics on the costs incurred by inmates who make phone calls or the volume of calls routinely placed by inmates in state prisons.
Glynis Kazanjian is a freelance reporter. She can be reached at [email protected]