Calling it a “hard-won victory” for families, legal advocates and public health experts, the ACLU of Maryland praised Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order from Sunday releasing a group of inmates near the end of their sentences and some who are older than 60 amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, told The Washington Post the order covers 720 inmates who are near the end of their sentence and are at high risk of contracting coronavirus, and 110 older inmates.
“The public health experts have been clear: Any plan to effectively contain COVID-19 must include significant reductions in the number of people behind bars—for their safety and the safety of staff, their families, and for all of us,” Sonia Kumar, senior staff Attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said in a statement.
Paul DeWolfe, head of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, also applauded the decision.
“We have been calling for a reduction of the prisoner population since the pandemic has started,” DeWolfe said in a statement. “This order is a good first step towards following the guidance of public health experts and reducing the prison population.”
In a release about the order Sunday, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said it has already released 2,000 individuals over the last five weeks during the pandemic. Those came through expanded pretrial supervision and accelerated parole and home detention, the department said.
The agency said it was ready to implement Hogan’s new order.
While both organizations praised the move, the ACLU of Maryland and Maryland Office of the Public Defender also urged Hogan to take additional action.
“We urge the Governor and other officials to include the many others who can safely be released from among the thousands of medically vulnerable Marylanders in our places of detention,” Kumar said. “Taking this additional step is both an important human rights issue and a racial justice issue, since we know that due to structural racism the overwhelming majority of Marylanders who are incarcerated are Black, during a pandemic that is clearly having a disproportionate impact on Black Americans.”
DeWolfe said the order is “a good first step” but renewed a call to grant early release to even more geriatric inmates and prisoners with medical conditions.
The organizations are part of a larger coalition calling on the governor to reduce the population at the state’s prisons and jails during the pandemic, saying the cramped confines and unsanitary conditions of correctional facilities could lead to catastrophic outbreaks.
On a press call hosted by the coalition earlier this month, Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiology professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it was “enormously difficult” for inmates to adhere to social distancing guidelines that advise people to separate by six feet.
He also cautioned that guards and other facility staff “are the most likely people to bring this virus into these detained populations.”
Martina Hazelton, of the Lifer Family Support Network, said during the briefing her incarcerated husband was not receiving medication for his hypertension, and feared a similar lack of treatment if he got coronavirus.
“Everybody in there is scared. They’re all scared. They feel like sitting ducks,” said Hazelton, whose husband is in the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland.
The ACLU of Maryland and Office of the Public Defender petitioned the Maryland Court of Appeals to direct the state to make changes in the correctional system and juvenile justice system.
Among the other actions they would like to see: granting parole to more inmates who pose little risk to public safety; enhanced health screening, cleaning and hygiene protocols; reducing the number of detained juveniles; and using telephone or video conferencing for more procedural hearings that could lead to the release of inmates.
Last Thursday, state officials reported 136 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the prison system, including 72 correctional officers and 31 inmates.
Before issuing the order over the weekend, Hogan appeared at a press conference on Friday and defended his handling of the prison system.
He noted the prison population was “dramatically” reduced before the pandemic through the Justice Reinvestment Act, a 2017 law that eliminated mandatory minimums for controlled substance felonies and granted early release for many low-level offenders.
Robert Green, secretary of the department of corrections, “has been amazingly aggressive in our efforts to try to protect our prison staff and our prison population, and we’re continuing to take more steps every day,” Hogan said.
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