AFSCME: Officials Requiring Reassignment of Correctional Officers Exposed to COVID-19 Inmate

Emergency cleaners arrive at the Jessup Correctional Institution. Photo courtesy of AFSCME.

Local corrections officers who recently worked overtime shifts at Jessup Correctional Institution (JCI) will be temporarily reassigned to that prison in order to trace their exposure to an inmate who allegedly tested positive for  COVID-19, according to an email provided to Maryland Matters by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

The email, dated March 31, was sent to AFSCME Maryland field director Joe Cox from Gary W. McLhinney, assistant secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. The two had been discussing an employee grievance at the time.

“The commissioner made the decision that until complete tracing on the confirmed COVID cases can be completed all persons who worked during the time period will be TDY to JCI. This was a recommendation from medical,” the March 31 email read.

“TDY” is a temporary employment transfer, Cox said.

Cox said he believes the staff are being transferred to Jessup from their regular assignments to help contain a possible outbreak of the Coronavirus.

On Monday, state corrections officials confirmed the first case of an inmate who tested positive for COVID-19, along with two “non-correctional contract employees.”

“The three are associated with correctional facilities in Baltimore and Jessup,” Public Safety department spokesman Mark Vernarelli provided in a statement. And that’s all state officials would say.

Another spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said the agency would provide more information on the potentially infected Corrections officers Tuesday evening, but couldn’t say when. A response was not received by publication time, which was several hours after a request for comment was made.

Click here to see a video of the emergency cleanup at Jessup.

The move to keep the Corrections officers working at Jessup appears to contradict federal and state guidelines that call for individuals to self-quarantine for two weeks, if they believe they have come in contact with an individual suspected or confirmed of having the coronavirus.

A nine-year veteran correctional officer at JCI, who received confirmation of the inmate’s COVID-19 test results, said he is concerned that the new policy seemed to be a secret and that officers only found out about it by accident.

“This is not a time to cover up anything,” Jessup correctional officer Oluwadamilola Olaniyan said in a telephone interview. “The COVID-19 virus is deadly. If an inmate or officer has it, it is wise to let people know.”

Olaniyan said a professional cleaning service that works with bio-hazardous materials was at the Jessup facility cleaning on Friday, the same day the inmate — a man believed to be in his 40’s — was taken by ambulance to University of Maryland Baltimore Washington Medical Center.

The Jessup officer said the inmate did not spend a long time in the prison infirmary. He only went there to be treated for an existing medical condition.

State prison officials contend they are following coronavirus guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and the Maryland Department of Health.

“Protecting staff, detainees, and inmates while maintaining public safety remains the Department’s top priority…The Department will continue to ensure an adequate supply of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is on hand and continues to monitor and manage inventory of PPE on a daily basis,” Vernarelli wrote in an email Tuesday.

This includes all preventive actions, he said.

Olaniyan said on Tuesday a notice was posted at JCI for workers. Corrections officers will receive a mask and gown when an inmate suspected of having the coronavirus has to be transported.

“We don’t wear masks,” Olaniyan said Friday in an interview. “As of now, they just provide the gloves. They’re not everywhere. You have to keep asking for them.”

As of March 25, state officials said levels of screening is being conducted in “all operational areas” and temperature checks have been implemented at every correctional facility.

Corrections officers, along with union officials, say protections in place — which have been slow coming — are not enough.

“We’ve been asking them to lock down the jail,” Olaniyan said. “It takes two officers to sit with an inmate when they’re hospitalized. We are already short staffed.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, state officials reported 1,660 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Maryland and 18 deaths.

Olaniyan said the inmate appears to be recovering.

“He’s doing well, recuperating,” Olaniyan said. “That is what we want.”

Glynis Kazanjian is a freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected]

A NOTE TO OUR READERS

In these uncertain times, we’re here for you. We have a page dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 in Maryland. We’ll continue to report with an eye toward the humanity of our sources and a commitment to public accountability.

Stay informed by signing up for the Maryland Matters Memo — our daily morning news roundup, delivered to your inbox. Free.

And if you are able, please consider a tax-deductible contribution to support our nonprofit newsroom.

We’re burning the candle at both ends — doing all we can to keep ourselves, and everyone else, as safe as possible — as we keep you informed.

Please take care!