Family members of incarcerated Marylanders have filed a petition with the state’s high court seeking immediate release of inmates in prisons and jails, citing the COVID-19 public health crisis.
The petition was filed overnight Monday on behalf of the Lifer Family Support Network and the family members of current inmates at Maryland local jails and prisons.
The petitioners want the Court of Appeals to use extraordinary powers to prioritize the release of prisoners at the greatest risk of contracting the novel coronavirus, require county courts to expedite decisions on releasing inmates and cease new admissions into the state’s jails and prisons, unless necessary to address a public safety threat.
The lack of a statewide response on imprisoned populations stands in contrast to other actions by state leaders, including the shelter-in-place order, postponed elections, school and court closures, the petitioners said.
“In nearly every respect, the State of Maryland has taken extraordinary steps to slow the COVID-19 pandemic… But there has been one blind spot in Maryland’s leadership on the COVID19 pandemic: jails and prisons,” the petition states. “In contrast to the speed with which Maryland has followed public health officials’ other warnings, Maryland has failed almost completely to act in any coordinated way to prevent COVID-19 from spreading rapidly through correctional facilities and overwhelming medical resources in nearby communities.”
Maryland courts have been closed to the public and are mostly limited to emergency proceedings until at least May 1.
The petition also asks the state’s high court to mandate that correctional facilities implement all Centers for Disease Control guidelines for screening, cleaning, hygiene and social distancing.
The filing comes after groups including the American Civil Liberties Union have been pressing the state for more decisive action within the state prison and county jail systems. The ACLU, as well as Arnold & Porter and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, are representing the petitioners in the case.
There are about 24,000 people held in Maryland’s jails and prisons, including 8,000 people with pending court cases.
The petition argues that exposing prisoners and staff to “unnecessary health risks is inhumane” and violates rights under the U.S. and Maryland constitutions.
“Indeed, for at-risk individuals, continued detention may literally be tantamount to a death sentence,” the petition states.
Other state high courts have taken action recently to significantly reduce incarcerated populations, including those in California, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Washington, Kentucky, South Carolina, Maine, Montana, and Wyoming.
Former Maryland health secretaries Georges H. Benjamin and Joshua Sharfstein, and the state’s former public safety secretary Stuart O. Simms filed declarations in support of the petition.
“An outbreak in prison could have a devastating impact on public health far beyond the prison walls. Staff who enter and leave the facility could transmit the virus to the broader community and demands for intensive care beds and ventilators could overwhelm local hospitals and health care providers,” wrote Benjamin, who is now executive director of the American Public Health Association. “It is essential at this time that all steps are taken to reduce infection and to ‘flatten the curve’ to ensure that our health care system does not collapse.”
The Court of Appeals is considering a second petition, filed by the Office of the Public Defender on Friday, to take similar action to reduce the number of youth held in detention by the Department of Juvenile Services. On Tuesday, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera issued an order requiring responses to that petition by Wednesday.