Maryland Reports First Inmate Death From COVID-19 Pandemic

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Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services on Monday confirmed its first inmate death related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

An incarcerated individual in his 60’s with “serious underlying medical conditions” reportedly died Saturday. According to a news release, he was hospitalized for several weeks.

The inmate was held at Jessup Correctional Institution, which to date holds the highest number of infections among inmates and correctional officers alike. 

The department has now reported 93 positive cases across individuals that interact with its system — up 36 cases from April 8. This includes 18 inmates, 47 correctional officers, 22 contract workers and six department employees. 

A coalition of prisoners’ rights organizations, including the Justice Policy Institute and the ACLU of Maryland, released a list of demands sent to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr (R) last week that they say could lessen the impact of the pandemic in Maryland’s detention facilities. 

“We urge Governor Hogan to depopulate every aspect of the correctional system as practically, expediently, and safely as possible, to stem the spread of COVID-19,” they wrote. “It is impossible for correctional units to comply with CDC guidelines without reducing populations.”

Advocates have asked Hogan to order state and local law enforcement agencies to curb arrests and pre-trial detention in cases where the individual is not an immediate threat to the public, and to free medically vulnerable populations and low-risk inmates who are nearing their release dates, among other demands.

In response to their call, a spokesman for the governor last week tweeted steps that the department has taken to reduce the rate of infection, including halting new admissions from local jails into state-run facilities through the balance of the pandemic.

Additionally, the department temporarily suspended its prisoner visitation in early March in an attempt to protect inmates and staff from a potential viral outbreak.

“We recognize the tremendous importance of visits and family contact,” Secretary Robert L. Green said in a statement. “But it is critical for the health and well-being of our employees and those in our custody that we protect them. This is a human event, and we need to do everything possible to ensure that families can communicate.”

At a virtual press conference held by the coalition last Wednesday, Dr. Chris Beyrer of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health explained that many people may incorrectly perceive that prisoners are quarantined because of their isolation from the general public.

Hogan, himself, is in this camp. At a March 19 news conference, he stated that inmates “are kind of protected and in quarantine,” further suggesting that “they’re safer where they are.”

Beyrer said that staff and other workers are often the most likely carriers of the virus into prisons.

“It has been the detention facility staff … who have been most effective, particularly at the beginning, and who are the most likely people to bring this virus in to these detained populations,” he said. “That happened in Wuhan, that happened at Rikers [Island in New York City] and the early evidence is that that is happening in Maryland.”

The governor has made no indication that he will release any inmate population early in the face of the pandemic.

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Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.