Del. Jazz Lewis: Release Nonviolent Inmates and Juveniles So They Can Social Distance From Home

Photo by Darrin Klimek/Getty Images

We are in the midst of a pandemic that comes once in a generation, and our nation’s collective response has shown us that we were wholly unprepared. The little data that is currently available shows the brunt of this virus is not shared equally among the population.

Black Americans are grossly over-represented in the number of exposures and deaths. Just this week, we’ve seen shocking numbers from Chicago to Louisiana to Milwaukee, where nearly 70% to 80% of their deaths from COVID-19 have been Black Americans.

Maryland began reporting the racial breakdown of coronavirus deaths in the state this week. I thank Delegate Nick Mosby for organizing a movement to get Maryland to start tracking the racial and other demographics of those positively affected and those who die from the coronavirus. I was proud to sign on to that letter with 80 of my colleagues.

Further, I thank Governor Hogan for his quick response and for asking his administration to begin providing that information, and many of the other measures they have taken. This data has shown that Prince George’s County is leading the state both in positive tests and in deaths.

Del. Jazz M. Lewis (D-Prince George’s)

Access to this data is critical, yet I am fearful that when we begin reporting demographics this month, we will also see a dangerous spike in our prisons and juvenile facilities. This is preventable if we act now.

What should we do?

What we have learned from this virus is that to stop COVID-19 in its tracks, we must act decisively and quickly. We took decisive action in our schools to prevent the spread of the virus when we allowed students and teachers to go home and practice social distancing. We did the same with much of our economy, including in health care in that we have asked for all elective surgeries and non-dire need situations to halt procedures for the time being, while our health care workers respond to the virus. We have exacted preventative measures in much of the state, except for the criminal justice and juvenile justice system.

As reported by the Justice Policy Institute last fall, Maryland leads the nation in incarcerating black people, with 70% of our prison population being black, as compared to 31% of the state population. Combining the dangers of inmates’ inability to social distance with the fact that our prisons are already predominately black, creates a bleak picture in which Maryland could follow other states with large populations of black residents dying due to COVID-19.

As reported by The New York Times, experts agree that these four factors affect the spread of the virus. They include how close you get to someone with the virus; how long you are near that person; whether that person projects viral droplets on you; and how much you touch your face, in particular without washing your hands.

Your age and health are also factors. Unlike all of us, inmates cannot practice social distancing or even regular sanitation in their cells. They must come out to eat, they have to go to the commissary to get supplies, and keeping six feet of distance is difficult in already overcrowded facilities.

We can protect our inmates, adult and juvenile, and our correctional workers by allowing low nonviolent offenders to continue confinement at home and by identifying those who are scheduled to be released in the next six months and allow them to finish their remaining sentence on home confinement. In a study conducted by the Department of Justice, prison populations are more likely to suffer from preexisting conditions than the general population. In particular, we should prioritize our vulnerable inmates, including the youth, people over age 50, those with chronic illnesses, pregnant people, those with asthma, HIV, and other diseases, disabilities, and pre-existing conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19. We should ensure released inmates have adequate access to prescriptions, housing, and transitional services to help them acclimate back into the community.

Further, I implore Maryland to join other states that have begun publicly reporting on testing and positive cases in our jails and prisons, just as Virginia and Washington, D.C., are already doing, and it is my hope that the racial composition of the infected is included in that reporting. Each prison and juvenile facility should follow the CDC guidelines of providing adequate sanitation to inmates and to frequently clean facility common areas including bathrooms.

The state is facing a crunch in not having enough personal protective equipment (PPE) materials. How can our correctional workers adequately protect themselves, keep facilities clean, and monitor the massive prison population under these current conditions? We house 19,000 people in our state prisons. If we can lower this, we will save lives. We need not stretch this further by continuing to keep inmates who do not need to be there right now.

I don’t want to read similar statistics about our overwhelming Black prison population and how they are dying for something that we could have prevented.

— JAZZ LEWIS

The writer, a Democrat, represents Prince George’s County in the Maryland House of Delegates.