Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center. Photo via Google Maps screengrab.

The Office of the Public Defender is petitioning the Maryland Court of Appeals to release children from the state’s juvenile jails and prisons to protect young people from the coronavirus.

“It is not a question of if, but when COVID-19 will arrive in Maryland’s juvenile jails … In crowded, congregate facilities it is impossible for young people to maintain the recommended distance or take the necessary steps to sanitize the surfaces they encounter,” the public defenders wrote in their petition.

The public defenders estimate that about 347 youth are held in juvenile jail facilities and prisons run by the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.

Jenny Egan, chief attorney for the Juvenile Division in the the Office of the Public Defender’s Baltimore office, pushed DJS to protect incarcerated children from COVID-19.

“Imagine how the fear and uncertainty we are all feeling about the pandemic are magnified for families whose children are locked into a high-risk environment?” she said. “The Department of Juvenile Services has failed to respond to the significant dangers for incarcerated children, their families, and ultimately the entire community. It is time to bring our kids home now.”

About two weeks ago a group of scientists, physicians and public health experts wrote a letter to the Department of Juvenile Services and juvenile court judges on the COVID-19 risks for detained populations in Maryland.

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

They added that the social distancing measures that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended are “nearly impossible” in detention facilities, especially in facilities that are already at maximum capacity.

The health experts said COVID-19 threatens detained individuals, corrections staff, and the communities with whom those staff members come into contact outside of the facilities.

Jails and prisons should incarcerate “as few youth as possible” in order to “mitigate the harm from a COVID-19 outbreak,” they said.

“Institutions responsible for the care and custody of vulnerable populations must take unique steps to ‘flatten the curve’ and slow the spread of this virus,” the health experts wrote.

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Marcus Dieterle

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at