Frosh: Release Some Inmates to Avoid ‘Catastrophic Outbreak’ of COVID-19 in Prisons

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Maryland’s attorney general has joined the chorus calling for the state to release some prisoners to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus behind bars.

“As we all know, many challenges lie ahead, but I write now to urge you to act before it’s too late to prevent a catastrophic outbreak of COVID-19 in our prisons and jails,” Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) wrote in a letter to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R) late last week.

The letter was not publicized by the attorney general’s office, but was released by advocacy groups on Monday.

Advocates and attorneys have been calling for similar releases since Hogan declared a state of emergency in Maryland last month. The Office of the Public Defender sent a letter to Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera last week urging her to use emergency powers to enable and expedite the release of incarcerated adults.

Separate from the letter, the public defender filed a petition on Friday seeking the release of juvenile clients; the Department of Juvenile Services announced the first case of COVID-19 within that system on Monday.

The first diagnoses of the novel coronavirus within the state’s prison system were announced last Monday. On Friday, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said there were at least 17 cases related to employees and inmates within the system.

Corrections officials have said they stepped up hygiene and sanitation efforts to protect inmates and have implemented medical screenings to protect correctional staff.

While commending Hogan’s leadership during the COVID-19 crisis, Frosh said more needs to be done to ensure the virus doesn’t spread within the crowded confines of state prisons.

“The reality is that we need a broader and faster release of a larger swath of inmates,” Frosh wrote. “Such action is necessary to stave off a catastrophe that will not only result in avoidable illness and death in the prisons, but will also put our correctional officers, who already put their lives on the line, at much greater risk. This increased danger will in turn augment spread of the disease in the community at large.”

Frosh encouraged Hogan to work with the state’s parole commission to exercise his commutation authority “to release as soon as possible a larger number of inmates who pose little risk to public safety but whose continued incarceration greatly enhances risk to public health.”

Potential candidates for release include elderly and non-violent inmates nearing the end of their sentences, Frosh wrote.

The attorney general said his office stands ready to help facilitate “this important and urgent effort.”

A response from the Hogan administration was not immediately available Monday evening.

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines covered government and politics for Maryland Matters for two years before moving into an editing position. 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.