With COVID-19 Diagnoses in State Prison, Advocates Intensify Calls for Inmate Releases

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Attorneys and advocates in Maryland renewed calls for a reduction in the number of inmates at the state’s correctional facilities on Monday, after the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 at a state prison were announced.

An inmate at Jessup Correctional Institution tested positive for the novel coronavirus, state officials and employees confirmed Monday. And two contract employees with the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, who worked in Baltimore and Jessup, also tested positive for the virus, Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman Mark Vernarelli said.

In the state’s maximum-security psychiatric hospital, the Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, eight patients have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Howard County Health Department. There are three more pending tests for patients at the hospital, which is in Jessup, and one staff member has also tested positive.

State and local health officials said they are following safety protocols at the facilities to stem the spread of the virus, but advocates and unions were sounding alarms on Monday, calling for increased protections and efforts to reduce inmate populations throughout the state.

The Maryland ACLU and other organizations have called for a decrease in new admissions to state and local correctional facilities, sentence reductions for low-level offenders and the early release of elderly inmates and others whose sentences are expiring soon.

“Being in places that have poor access to medical care, that are not sanitary, and that are crowded is going to put many vulnerable people at risk,” a plea from the Maryland ACLU to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) reads. “By making the choice not to act now, we are choosing to sacrifice their health and their lives. That is unacceptable.”

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said the administration is “confident in the steps we are taking to protect the prison population.” State correctional facilities have instituted enhanced hygiene and sanitation practices consistent with the recommendations of Maryland Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control, he said.

Vernarelli said state prisons have started temperature checks and administering health questionnaires to employees at all facilities during each shift change. COVID-19 response teams are working to determine whether any other staff or inmates had contact with the individuals who tested positive and the department has been deep-cleaning its facilities for days.

Charlie Gischlar, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, said all staff at Perkins are screened upon entry and all patient temperatures are taken twice a day. Units at the facility are following isolation precautions and staff members are required to regularly wash hands and wear masks to minimize exposure.

But advocates say Hogan should do more to exercise his broad commutation powers and issue an executive order to reduce the overall carceral population in Maryland.

Continued incarceration of low-level offenders at local correctional facilities is particularly problematic in light of the continued closure of Maryland’s state courts for all non-emergency hearings, including jury trials, said Maryland’s Deputy Public Defender Becky Feldman.

Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera late last week extended the court closures through May 1.

Courts in some counties are now holding dockets of guilty plea hearings, in which defendants can plead guilty knowing they’ll be released, Feldman said.

“But that’s a very concerning practice we need to be very wary of,” she said. “Because basically they’re saying you can plead guilty and give up all of your constitutional rights and you’ll be released today. Or you can demand your constitutional rights and face longer incarceration time. We don’t know when the courts will be back open.”

Feldman said correctional facilities could be breeding grounds for the virus, with hundreds of employees coming and going each day and inmates congregating in shared spaces without adequate social-distancing or sanitizing protections.

“We’ve been raising the red flag for weeks now saying we need to reduce the population, not only for the safety of the inmates who are in there, but for the correctional officers, and the other personnel who work there every day,” Feldman said. “It’s going to become a health issue. And it’s going to become a security issue when you have mass amounts of people who are sick and can’t come to work or don’t want to come to work because they don’t want to get sick.”

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 3 President Patrick Moran said the union, which represents workers at state prisons and the Perkins hospital, is asking for emergency labor-management meetings throughout state government, as well as more protective equipment and practices for workers.

“We are asking people to put themselves in very dangerous and scary positions right now that have grave consequences on their health, the people they serve’s health and their families’ health,” Moran said. “The least that can be done here is provide them with the materials and the resources they need in order to do their job in a safe and healthy environment.”

The union has decried the discontinuation of hazard pay for state employees still reporting to work and questioned safety efforts.

By way of example, Moran said more hand sanitizer has been provided in prisons, but it doesn’t contain the concentration of alcohol necessary to kill germs. And Oluwadamilola Olaniyan, a union member and correctional officer at Jessup, said the sanitizer that had been provided isn’t being regularly refilled, along with other protective gear.

Ricci said the public safety department has been monitoring supplies daily and has provided free soap and education about personal hygiene to inmates. The department has undertaken other efforts to reduce transmission as well, he said.

“Total social distancing is impossible in a prison setting. However, by canceling visits, eliminating group programming and contact activities, and modifying movement the Department is working to keep infection from entering its facilities,” Ricci wrote in a statement.

Olaniyan said Monday that more can still be done to curtail movement within the Jessup facility, including locking down the facility for more hours to control the virus spread.

AFSCME signed on to a letter from the Maryland Prisoners’ Rights Coalition urging an executive order to reduce the state’s inmate population last week.

Feldman said Hogan has broad commutation powers in Maryland law and could release large swaths of the inmate populations advocates are concerned about. She said her office hopes to have a conversation with the administration in the near future about possible reductions in the inmate population.

Other states have been moving to reduce inmate populations. In New Jersey, state officials last week identified 1,000 inmates serving sentences for low-level crimes at county jails that should be released. Montana’s chief justice asked lower court judges to “release, without bond, as many prisoners as you are able, especially those being held for nonviolent offenses.” In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis (D) called on local sheriffs to reduce arrests and issued an executive order last week aimed at reducing the state’s overall inmate population by stopping new admissions to state prisons.

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.