The Lower Eastern Shore Children’s Center in Salisbury, Maryland. Image via Google Street View.
The Lower Eastern Shore Children’s Center in Salisbury, Maryland. Image via Google Street View.

Days after the Office of the Public Defender petitioned the Maryland Court of Appeals to release children from juvenile jails and prisons, arguing it was only a matter of time before coronavirus hit such facilities, a Department of Juvenile Services staffer tested positive for COVID-19.

The agency said the employee–the first person in the juvenile justice system to test positive–worked at Lower Eastern Shore Children’s Center in Salisbury. According to the Department of Juvenile Services’ website, the center serves as a detention center for young people waiting to go to court and “primarily serves youth from the Eastern Shore Region.”

Boys and girls also receive counseling and attend school there while they are detained.

The employee last worked at the facility on March 27 and has been in quarantine since. All staff and youth who were in contact with the employee are also in quarantine, and everyone else in the building is required to wear a mask, the agency said.

In addition to masks, the Department of Juvenile Services is taking a number of other steps at the Lower Eastern Shore Children’s Center to slow the spread of the virus. Those include limiting access to essential personnel, stepping up hygiene practices, modifying meals to meet social distancing requirements, and offering remote mental health services and additional medical screenings.

Last week, public defenders asked the state’s highest court to release young detainees to limit the spread of the disease, arguing the facilities make it “impossible for young people to maintain the recommended distance or take the necessary steps to sanitize the surfaces they encounter.”

About two weeks ago, a group of scientists, physicians and public health experts made a similar plea in a letter to the Department of Juvenile Services and juvenile court judges.

“Detention facilities are designed to maximize control of the incarcerated population, not to minimize disease transmission or to efficiently deliver health care,” the group wrote. “For these reasons, transmission of infectious diseases in jails and prisons is incredibly common, especially those transmitted by respiratory droplets.”

Advocates and attorneys have been making a similar push to protect adult populations in Maryland’s prisons and jails.

On March 18, a coalition of organizations that included the ACLU of Maryland, Maryland Office of the Public Defender and Maryland Prisoners’ Rights Coalition sent a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan asking him to release inmates who are particularly susceptible to coronavirus–namely people age 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions–and people who are in pre-trial detention or serving sentences that will expire soon.

That same day, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby ordered her staff not to prosecute cases for drug possession, attempt to distribute, prostitution, open container, trespassing, urinating in public and minor traffic offenses–all in an attempt to limit the threat of the virus in prisons and jails.

As of Friday, there were 17 confirmed cases within the Maryland correctional system, including three inmates, eight contractual employees, four correctional officers, and two parole/probation employees, according to state data.

Robert Green, Maryland secretary for public safety and correctional services, said at a press conference last week that inmates are making medical gowns, hand sanitizer, face shields and face masks for the state’s response to the virus.

The ACLU of Maryland blasted that decision, saying it “harkens back to the darkest days of history, when Black people were forced to work for the benefit of others, while their own safety and humanity were disregarded.”

Earlier today, the civil liberties organization shared a letter from Attorney General Brian Frosh to Hogan, dated April 3, urging swifter actions to prevent an outbreak in prisons and jails.

“The reality is we need a broader and faster release of a large swath of inmates,” Frosh wrote. “Such action is necessary to stave off a catastrophe that will not only result in avoidable illness and death in the prisons, but will also put our correctional officers, who already put their lives on the line, at much greater risk.”

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Brandon Weigel

Brandon Weigel is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he has been published in The Washington Post, The Sun, Baltimore Magazine, Urbanite, The Baltimore...