Chief Judge Wants Courts to Release Medically Vulnerable Inmates

Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera prepares to attend Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.'s inauguration last year. Photo by Josh Kurtz

The chief judge of Maryland’s highest court released guidance Tuesday evening instructing judges to consider releasing medically vulnerable inmates and limiting pre-trial detention amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera issued the instructive orders following a petition filed on behalf of the Lifer Family Support Network on April 6.

Barbera has also extended her order for courts to remain closed through June 5, barring emergency circumstances.

A coalition of prisoners’ rights organizations, including the Lifer Family Support Network, issued a list of demands to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr (R) last week, calling on him to limit the transfer of new offenders into state facilities, release medically vulnerable prisoners and improve safety conditions for those who must remain incarcerated, among other requests.

“It is impossible for correctional units to comply with CDC guidelines without reducing populations,” advocates wrote in their list of demands released last week. “Our State’s COVID-19 response plan is only as strong as its weakest links.”

Per Barbera’s order, administrative judges of the state’s circuit and district courts are encouraged to identify medically vulnerable inmates for potential release during the pandemic, should they not be a risk to public safety.

Judges have been instructed to carefully consider whether or not to bring new inmates into state detention facilities. They are also encouraged to quickly facilitate bond reviews and, at their discretion, hold hearings for individuals being held for nonviolent crimes and minor probation violations.

As they decide whether to implement pre-trial detention, Barbera has asked state judges to consider a number of factors, including whether or not serious harm could come to the health of the individual, facility staff or other inmates should they be detained, and if the defendant poses a danger to their community.

If so, she has asked judges to determine if pretrial release conditions that could reduce any instance of risk are available.

When judges consider releasing pretrial detainees, Barbera has asked them to keep in mind:

  • Pre-existing conditions the individual may suffer from
  • Whether they have tested positive or are presumed to be positive of COVID-19
  • If the facility where they are held is capable of handling their medical challenges
  • And whether or not there are pre-trial release conditions that could mitigate any danger the defendant might pose to the public in lieu of their detention.

Additionally, Barbera has suggested that judges think about the risk that the pandemic could pose to incarcerated individuals when determining a defendant’s release conditions and promptly schedule remote hearings and issue rulings for sentence modification when requested by either party in a case.

At a virtual news conference held last week, Martina Hazelton, Lifer Family Support Network co-founder, said that all other medical care in detention facilities has gone by the wayside since the public health crisis reached the state.

“So COVID has taken a front seat to everything and everything else has gone by the wayside,” she said.

Hazelton’s husband is serving a sentence at Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland. She explained that he isn’t getting appropriate care for his diagnosed hypertension and is nervous about what could happen to him were he to become infected.

“Everybody in there is scared — they’re all scared. They feel like they’re sitting ducks.”

As of Monday, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services had confirmed one inmate death and 93 positive cases across its department.

In response to the coalition’s requests, a spokesman for the governor tweeted steps the department has taken to quash the virus’ spread in state facilities, including the temporary moratorium on new admissions from local jails.

Additionally, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services halted family visits last month.

But the governor has made no indication that he will release any prisoners 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.