House Republicans Press Hogan Administration for Data on Prisons, Nursing Homes

House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) and House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) are among five House Republicans who have written to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) about inmates being released from Maryland prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Members of the Maryland House Republican Caucus sent a letter to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) Friday asking him to share data about the 2,000 inmates quietly released from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services’ custody since the COVID-19 pandemic began to infiltrate the state nearly two months ago.

On the same day, another handful of GOP lawmakers wrote to Maryland Health Secretary Robert R. Neall to provide information about the COVID-19 outbreak in nursing homes and other elder care facilities.

In their letter to Hogan, Republicans expressed “serious concerns” about the state’s plans to release prison inmates in an attempt to slow the spread the virus.

“While we agree that it is in the public interest to reduce inmate (and correctional officer) exposure to COVID-19 by expeditiously moving prisoners to alternative places of confinement, releasing them early into the community or to their homes is an approach that gives us serious concerns,“ lawmakers wrote in the letter signed by House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel), Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County), Del. Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany), Del. Paul Corderman (R-Washington) and Del. Charles J. Otto (R-Lower Shore).

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services revealed early last week that it has released over 2,000 incarcerated individuals since the start of the public health crisis. 

“These releases were achieved by leveraging the acceleration and expansion of placements onto pretrial supervision; release during booking and pre-trial commitment; mandatory release of sentenced inmates; and accelerated processing of releases through the Parole Commission and Home Detention placement,” department spokesman Mark Vernarelli said in a statement.

Additionally, Hogan signed an executive order last week to facilitate the potential release of hundreds of other eligible inmates nearing the end of their sentences.

Prisoners’ rights advocates, who had been pressing the governor to take action for weeks, considered this a win.

We will be dealing with COVID-19 for the foreseeable future and we must be led by public health, not politics,” Sonia Kumar, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said in a statement.

Now the state’s GOP lawmakers are asking for the governor to disclose information surrounding these newly released individuals, including the crimes they were convicted of committing and the regions where they were released.

Legislators are also requesting increased access to tests and personal protective equipment for inmates and correctional officers, more off-site care facilities for those who may be infected and mandatory testing for anyone being released to the public.

“It is imperative that the public be to assured that convicted criminals released from their term of incarceration as a result of legitimate health policy objectives do not pose an undue threat to the citizens of Maryland,” the letter read. “Without this data being released, it is difficult to make those assurances to our shared constituents.“

A report released by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Thursday indicated that there are 180 confirmed coronavirus cases across the state correctional system — up 28 cases from Tuesday. Seventy percent of these cases are seen in correctional officers.

The report also indicated that 11 contract workers have COVID-19.

With these new releases in mind, the delegates note a number of worries, from a possible boom of infection rates in lesser-impacted communities to a potential increase in crime.

The state lawmakers pointed to the revelation that incarcerated individuals are being let go directly from their holding facilities rather than being moved to detention centers nearer to their homes, which are known as “release hubs.”

Earlier this month, Robert Green, the secretary of Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, wrote a letter to members of the House Judiciary and Senate Judicial Proceedings Committees answering a series of questions they posed about how procedure across the state’s facilities has changed in the face of the pandemic.

In his response, Green detailed that inmates are not being transferred to release hubs in an effort to slow transmission and said that the department is “making every best effort to ensure those inmates being released directly from their holding facility have adequate transportation to their home plans.”

He also said that newly freed inmates are being screened for COVID-19, but not tested, upon their release. 

Green made no indication in his letter as to whether or not the department has access to an adequate number of tests.

The Republican lawmakers called this process “quite concerning,” explaining that many of these individuals will be released from prisons in rural areas represented by Buckel, Corderman and Otto.

“There is a threshold of what these communities can absorb and support,” they said. “There is often not enough manpower or infrastructure in place to provide the services necessary for successful reentry.”

The letter said that the pandemic has left newly freed people with limited housing options, job placement opportunities and social services to acclimate themselves to life outside of a detention center. 

They noted that this has the potential to increase the rate of recidivism, arguing that other states that have implemented similar plans “have already experienced terrible instances of early-release” inmates endangering the public.

“DPSCS has historically advocated for the creation of a stable ‘home plan’ to prepare individuals for integration back into society,” lawmakers wrote.

“Unfortunately, this current pandemic has eradicated a majority of these options. Without this critical support infrastructure in place, individuals are at a much higher risk for recidivism.”

Meanwhile, the status of elderly Marylanders isolated in nursing home communities is similarly causing concerns from lawmakers during the public health crisis.

Earlier this month, Hogan announced the creation of strike teams made up of health officials, hospitals and members of the National Guard and the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems to furnish care and equipment at any state nursing home that asks following the mass-outbreak of COVID-19 cases at Pleasant View Nursing Home in Carroll County.

Another letter from a handful of members of the House Republican Caucus was disseminated Friday to Neall.

“We are routinely seeing headlines of outbreaks developing in nursing homes throughout the State of Maryland,” they wrote. “We are confident they are doing everything possible to prevent these outbreaks and fatalities; however, unfortunately, there continue to be multiple reports of confirmed cases in nursing homes.”

The letter, cosigned by Szeliga and Kipke as well as the other Republicans on the House Health and Government Operations Committee — Del. Brian A. Chisholm (R-Anne Arundel), Del. Susan W. Krebs (R-Carroll), Del. Matt Morgan (R-St. Mary’s), Del. Teresa E. Reilly (R-Cecil and Harford) and Del. Sid Saab (R-Anne Arundel) — asked the Department of Health to publicly disclose more information about potential and existing COVID-19 outbreaks in elder care facilities, citing instances where constituents have been in the dark regarding their aging and disabled family members.

“These people are desperate for information and peace of mind if we can offer it,” the letter read.

Lawmakers are asking Neall to release information surrounding:

  • Total confirmed cases, related deaths and full recoveries in state nursing homes

  • A count of infected staff members and what steps are taken to quarantine them

  • Facility procedure for monitoring active cases and any precautionary measures implemented to quash full-fledged outbreaks
  • How residents are admitted or readmitted to facilities during the public health crisis

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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.