Federal Judge Orders Heightened Response to COVID-19 in Prince George’s Jail

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A federal judge will monitor the Prince George’s County jail’s response to COVID-19, expressing deep concern about medical care for detainees in Maryland’s coronavirus epicenter.

U.S. District Court Judge Paula Xinis will require the jail to implement new safety measures and create a plan to train medical staff, more quickly treat inmates and more reliably monitor all inmates for symptoms of COVID-19, according to an order released late Thursday.

After concluding that the jail was the site of a “large outbreak” of COVID-19 between the end of March and mid-April that was largely ignored by medical staff, Xinis will also require written plans for administering virus tests in the jail as well as a report on the number of positive tests.

After the lawsuit was filed by The Civil Rights Corps in late April, Xinis appointed an infectious disease expert to inspect the jail.

In a 33-page opinion released Thursday, Xinis wrote the jail is now complying with most guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, but the inspection and court testimony showed that county jail officials had “exhibited a reckless disregard for provision of basic care” with medically vulnerable detainees “left as sitting ducks for COVID-19, with no real plan for their continued safety.”

“It was good fortune that none, to date, suffered any of the serious, sometimes catastrophic, outcomes of the virus,” Xinis wrote.

The judge also concluded that COVID-19 testing at the facility was inadequate. Of 20 inmates tested at one point, 18 were COVID-positive. And despite the high rate of positive tests, more tests weren’t deployed and there was no evidence that detainees with symptoms of the virus were quarantined or treated.

In court filings, the county has argued that officials took proactive steps to control the virus, including suspending inmate work details, conducting daily temperature checks, purchasing supplies including soap and masks, and reducing the inmate population.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the jail held roughly 720 detainees; as of Wednesday, the number of inmates had shrunk to 544, the majority of whom are men waiting for trial.

But Xinis concluded that many of the other actions were inadequate and “raised obvious red flags.”

The soap purchased by the county were small, hotel-sized bars that cost 12 cents each and were quickly consumed. And the limited supply wasn’t enough to meet federal hand-washing guidelines.

A log of daily temperature checks was incomplete and showed body temperatures that were “consistently and atypically low,” some of them indicative of hypothermia, Xinis wrote.

“And no record reflected — ever — a temperature over 99 degrees, a fact the Court found both curious and alarming in light of both the eighteen confirmed COVID-19 positive detainees and that the singular most frequent symptom of the virus is fever,” Xinis wrote.

The Civil Rights Corps sought release of high-risk and medically vulnerable inmates, however Xinis wrote she wasn’t convinced that was necessary.

She ordered the county to create a plan to identify, monitor, treat and house high-risk detainees.

Xinis will also require the county to create a comprehensive written plan to provide soap, cleaning supplies and face masks to inmates, as well as plans to implement physical distancing between inmates.

Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns at Color Of Change, issued a statement following the judge’s opinion and order on Thursday.

“It is long-past time for correctional facilities to take seriously their duty to protect the people held within their care,” Roberts said in a statement. “While we are encouraged by the mandate to improve conditions inside the facility, we will continue to push the jail to release as many people as possible as quickly as possible to prevent detention from becoming a death sentence.”

As of Wednesday, there were 12,830 cases of COVID-19 in Prince George’s County, about 29% of the total confirmed cases in the state.

The court will hold a follow-up hearing on June 22.

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.