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COVID-19 in Maryland Justice

Ex-Inmates on Prince George’s County Jail COVID-19 Lawsuit: ‘It’s Like We’re Not Humans’

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Michael Montgomery’s roommate was shuffled in and out of their cell in the Prince George’s County Jail at least three times before he was isolated. 

“They didn’t take him out of our cell until his temperature was like 101 — 104 [degrees],” Montgomery said. 

His cellmate was showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, and shortly after the man was whisked away to a medical unit, Montgomery started to show symptoms, too. 

“They never informed us about the COVID-19 or the precautions to take when it first happened,” Montgomery said at a news conference Monday.

Montgomery, too, was moved back and forth between the infirmary and his dorm before being put into an isolation cell to be tested for the virus. He described the walls: covered in feces, vomit and old food — “plus the COVID-19 that’s in your body,” he said.

His test returned positive. Montgomery said that because all he knew of COVID-19 was what he had heard on TV, he immediately thought he was going to die.

“Those are the first thoughts in your head: Like, ‘I’m gonna die. I got COVID-19.’ Because that’s what was being put out there,” he explained. 

Montgomery said he was kept in an isolation cell in the infirmary for 10 days, fighting the virus and the unsavory conditions he was subjected to: “the fumes from old food, feces, urine, mold, bugs — you have to fight all this right here at one time.”

While all of this was going on, Montgomery said he was unable to shower for a week and a half and was not given a clean uniform, socks or underwear. 

Before being moved back to general population, Montgomery was shuffled around, again, between a congregate holding cell with seven other COVID-positive men and an equally disgusting isolation cell — all, he said, while receiving little-to-no medical care.

”It’s like we’re not humans,” said Montgomery. “It’s like we animals, or test rats or something like that. And that’s how they treat you in jail with the COVID-19.”

Before being readmitted to the general population area, Montgomery said he was made to sign a paper confirming he had been given instructions about how to take care of himself but was never told if he had officially recovered. 

Before being bailed out of the facility a month ago, he was placed back in a cell with the man he caught the virus from in the first place and asserts that neither of them was tested again. Montgomery said a lot of people on his unit looked sick and weren’t getting tested. 

“PG County Jail is a breeding place for COVID-19,” he said ahead of a court hearing to consider new evidence in a federal court case brought against Prince George’s County Department of Corrections Director Mary Lou McDonough in late April.

The Civil Rights Corps filed a federal class-action lawsuit against McDonough, alleging unsanitary facilities and non-compliance with CDC-recommended guidelines. 

The plaintiffs also requested that county officials thin out the jail population to limit the ability of the virus to spread. 

Just days before the complaint was filed, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) issued an executive order allowing for the release of hundreds of prisoners held at state-run facilities. Because county jails are not under the purview of the state, local officials have been left to determine whether or not they will release specific populations early. 

In an attempt to reduce the facility from crowding, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha N. Braveboy (D) initiated Operation Safe Release, lessening the number of inmates held by 150 since early March.

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Paula Xinis ordered the county to create and implement a plan with updated safety measures, more adequate treatment of symptomatic inmates and updated staff training in the facility. 

A hearing was held in federal court Monday to determine whether more court intervention is warranted in the jail based on newly submitted evidence including current and former inmate testimony, expert opinions and a Prince George’s County Department of Corrections COVID-19 training PowerPoint presentation. 

“What we have learned from talking to a large number of people detained in the jail and the people who represent them is that the things that the jail claims that it’s doing are not actually being done,” said Katie Chamblee-Ryan, senior attorney and coordinator of the Prosecutor Project at the Civil Rights Corps. 

Chamblee-Ryan is one of the plaintiffs in the case. She asserts facility employees are not effectively checking inmates for symptoms and often delay requests for medical assistance. 

With this filing, Chamblee-Ryan’s team is looking for an assurance of oversight when it comes to policy implementation, relief in other areas that are still under investigation and a lift on the 23-hour lockdown implemented to stop the spread, which she says is a constitutional violation.

“It does not appear to us that the jail is going to take this seriously on its own unless something seriously, seriously changes,” she said at a news conference ahead of the Monday afternoon court hearing.

‘Trying to check the box’

Chamblee-Ryan argued that in instances where the facility does hold to the court’s recommendations, they are unflinchingly rigid, noting that a man in his 60s with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease had been put in an isolation cell with feces-covered walls and no ventilation. 

She said jail officials asked him to clean that and other cells — some of which had held COVID-positive inmates. Chamblee-Ryan said that, in exchange, they gave him extra snacks from the commissary, and that his condition has been deteriorated so much that he now has to undergo breathing treatments. 

“Even where it appears the jail’s attempting to comply with a court order, it really looks more like a place that’s trying to check the box and not someone that’s actually being sensitive to the serious, serious needs of the people that are detained there,” she said. “It’s very troubling to see.”

Despite looking to prove a growing list of problems in court, Chamblee-Ryan did laud the facility for doing a “big round of testing.”

There are currently 542 people in custody at the Prince George’s County Jail. Prince George’s Department of Corrections spokesman Andrew Cephas said that 25 inmates have tested positive since the pandemic’s onset. 

The facility began universally testing inmates in late May. According to Cephas, of 662 tests completed since May 21, only seven have returned positive.

All of these individuals were asymptomatic,” he told Maryland Matters of the confirmed seven cases in an email. “With the exception of one individual, all have completed quarantine and returned to general population.”

On-site employees have also been universally tested. Of 448 completed tests, Cephas said only two cases were confirmed.

A news release from early June stated that Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, a court-appointed health inspector, reviewed the jail on May 7 and 8, reporting to the court that the facility was implementing CDC-recommended practices, including staggered recreation time and giving inmates masks.

“The Prince George’s County Department of Corrections’ low positivity rate is a result of consistently heeding to the recommendations and guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Prince George’s County Health Department,” McDonough, the Department of Corrections’ director, said in a statement earlier this month. “I am pleased with the correctional employees’ willingness to adapt to new protocols in order to keep everyone at the facility safe.”

Chamblee-Ryan said, at the time that the lawsuit was filed, only 20 tests had been completed — 18 of which returned positive results. She also stated that it does not appear as though the jail has planned to do a round of re-testing. 

The Department of Corrections is currently developing a plan to periodically retest detainees, ensuring the safety of everyone in custody,” Cephas said.

Scott Roberts, the senior director of criminal justice campaigns for Color of Change, said that Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) has an opportunity to intervene in the county’s next steps in how it handles people who largely have not yet been convicted for a crime.

“Releasing Prince Georgians from the nightmarish conditions inside the county jail, Alsobrooks will be demonstrating that her administration is committed to the overall health and wellness of both people inside the jail and the larger community,” said Roberts. “We’re talking about individuals potentially becoming seriously ill losing their lives because they’re currently being held or because they are too poor to pay bail.”

Roberts and other advocates are calling for Alsobrooks to sign an executive order that would allow vulnerable populations to be released.

“You can end this misery with the stroke of a pen,” he said.

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Ex-Inmates on Prince George’s County Jail COVID-19 Lawsuit: ‘It’s Like We’re Not Humans’