COVID-19 Infections On The Rise In Maryland’s Prisons

Photo by Alex Potemkin, Getty Images.

Staff members and incarcerated individuals are beginning to see spikes in COVID-19 infections in Maryland prisons, echoing upward trends in other areas of the state.

Maryland Matters compiled a database of confirmed COVID-19 infections among inmates and department staff at the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, finding that 1,349 inmates and 1,003 staff members have been infected since the pandemic’s start.

The data, made publicly available by Maryland’s Open Data Portal, is a weekly snapshot of confirmed cases across state and local congregate living facilities dating back to April 29.

These figures only capture new positive COVID-19 tests for the reported week, and do not account for any recoveries among either population.

While cases continue to trend upwards across the department, some facilities are seeing alarming surges.

The number of infections among inmates at North Branch Correctional Institution in Cumberland jumped by almost 130 in one week, and have increased dramatically at MCI-Hagerstown and Roxbury Correctional Institution in Western Maryland since early September.

November has shown a slight uptick for both staff and inmates at Jessup Correctional Institute in Anne Arundel County. But the last month-and-a-half have presented a stark upward trend at the Eastern Correctional Institution on the Eastern Shore, projecting what could be a rough winter season.

“Once the inmates got it, the officers are going to get it ― or vice versa,” AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran told Maryland Matters in an interview last week. “It’s never gonna affect one subsection of the population unless they get it really early and they’ve quarantined these people and it’s just ― you don’t know.” 

“It’s gonna affect everyone. It’s always going to affect everyone.”

Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said in a statement that the agency continues to adhere to guidelines put forth by the Maryland Department of Health.

“Some areas of the state are seeing an increase in cases, and since COVID is transmitted in communities everywhere, the Department continues to implore its employees to take precautions and follow all health guidelines in and outside of their workplaces,” he said.

As of Nov. 25, the department’s website reported confirmed COVID-19 cases among 949 staff members and 1,468 inmates. Since the start of the pandemic, two department employees and 13 incarcerated individuals have died.

Moran said that, early on in the pandemic, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services was more proactive in its attempt to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“But then they ramped everything down, just sort of like, ‘We don’t need to worry about this now, oh we got it under control,’” he explained. “It’s just totally and absolutely naïve and irresponsible.”

In the spring, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr (R) ordered the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to conduct universal testing in an effort to target the virus behind prison walls.

But their testing tactic has shifted.

Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Robert Green told members of the House Judiciary Committee last Friday that staff members are tested on a monthly basis, save for workers at the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center who are tested weekly.

Since late August, the department has been conducting “serial testing” of the incarcerated population in addition to testing inmates upon their entry to the facility.

According to Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the Environmental Health Bureau for the Maryland Department of Health, serial testing involves 60 to 70 people from each facility being tested in order to manage outbreaks of the virus.

Moran says that serial testing is not the way to prevent COVID-19’s spread in Maryland’s state prisons. 

“Look, you’ve got to test people on a regular basis and you’ve got to test everyone. That’s the only way you’re going to be able to control things,” he asserted. “Even if they confine things and they limit activity, they still can’t practice social distancing, they’re still people exposed to each other, there’s still people that are going to come in contact with each other.”

“It’s just impossible,” Moran stressed. “So that’s why they have to have more aggressive programs.”

According to Green, approximately 1,247 incarcerated individuals are tested weekly; there are about 18,000 prisoners in state custody. 

The agency’s medical contractors began serially testing the state prison population in late August, and have since completed 15,745 tests. 

“I can tell you this total is dated ― it literally changes hour to hour,” Green said Friday.

As of Nov. 17, the department had conducted 66,305 COVID-19 tests in total.

“The department continues to significantly expand and utilize COVID-19 testing capacity and protocol,” said Green before the House committee.

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