‘They feel like sitting ducks.’ Coalition calls for state to reduce number of inmates amid pandemic

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An overhead view of the Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup. Photo via Maryland DPSCS.

The ACLU of Maryland and the Office of the Public Defender are each petitioning the Maryland Court of Appeals to direct state officials to reduce the number of people in Maryland’s jails and prisons and improve conditions for the inmates who remain to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Both organizations, along with a coalition of public health experts and criminal justice reform advocates, are also urging Gov. Larry Hogan to take immediate steps that they say will reduce the risk of incarcerated people contracting COVID-19.

Those steps include ceasing new admissions to the state’s correctional facilities; releasing incarcerated people who can be “safely released to their communities,” with priority for “the most medically vulnerable” people in the system; releasing incarcerated children; supporting people who are released with services, health care and housing; and conducting health screenings and providing hygiene products to inmates.

During a virtual press briefing Wednesday, some advocates shared the experiences of their loved ones behind bars, saying inmates fear for their safety.

“Everybody in there is scared. They’re all scared. They feel like sitting ducks,” said Martina Hazelton, of the Lifer Family Support Network.

Hazelton’s husband, who is incarcerated at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, suffers from hypertension. Her husband called Wednesday morning and told her that he had not received his medication.

“COVID has taken a front seat to everything, and everything else has fallen by the wayside,” she said.

Hazelton added that her husband fears that he will continue to not get care for his condition, or if he gets infected with COVID-19.

Julie Magers, of the Maryland Prisoners’ Rights Coalition, has a family member who is incarcerated with a nonviolent property crime.

Inmates are not given personal protective equipment like face masks, and medical contractors are not wearing masks while handing out medications, Magers said.

She added that correctional staff are ignoring incarcerated individuals who are displaying symptoms of COVID-19.

As of Thursday morning, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services confirmed 57 cases of the virus. Among those infected are 10 inmates, 22 correctional officers, three parole employees, 19 contractors and one health provider.

Respiratory diseases like COVID-19 are particularly easy to transmit in crowded environments such as prisons because of the close contact between individuals, said Dr. Chris Beyrer, an epidemiology professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

That is why Gov. Larry Hogan has prohibited gatherings of more than 10 people, ordered people to stay at home except for essential services, and urged people to maintain at least six feet of distance from others when they are going out in accordance with recommendations from the CDC, Beyrer said.

But Beyrer said it is “enormously difficult” for people in correctional facilities to follow that guidance due to the confined space.

Many prisons and jails require incarcerated people to pay for soap and ban the use of hand sanitizer because it contains alcohol, Beyrer said, making it challenging for them to abide by the CDC’s guidance regarding personal hygiene.

Meanwhile, incarcerated people who are making face masks and other personal protective equipment are making “cents an hour” for their work, Hazelton said.

Sonia Kumar, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said it was “unconscionable” that Hogan wore a face mask made by inmates while touring a field hospital that has been set up inside of the Baltimore Convention Center “when the state has done so little to develop a statewide plan for the people in our places of detention.”

Beyrer said black people represent a disproportionate percentage of incarcerated people, and they also have a higher prevalence for hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and other underlying conditions. Those two factors combined could make black inmates even more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, he said.

On Thursday, the state released a racial breakdown of Maryland’s coronavirus data, which revealed that black Marylanders comprise a plurality of the state’s total confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Just less than a week after Maryland confirmed its first three cases of COVID-19, Hogan suspended visitation at state prisons, among other actions to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

But Beyrer said that guards and other facility staff “are the most likely people to bring this virus into these detained populations.”

COVID-19 outbreaks in Maryland’s correctional facilities will impact the community at large, said Jenny Egan, chief attorney for the juvenile division in the Baltimore branch of the Office of the Public Defender.

“Pandemics and outbreaks inside of prisons don’t stay in prisons,” she said.

Hundreds of individuals–including case managers, correctional officers, mental health professionals, medical staff, food preparation workers, and janitorial staff–enter and exit Maryland’s jails and prisons every day, potentially carrying COVID-19 between those facilities and their home communities, Egan said.

Last Friday, the Office of the Public Defender petitioned the Maryland Court of Appeals to release children from the state’s juvenile jails and prisons to protect them from COVID-19.

There are incarcerated children with severe asthma and other health complications, and even a child who is 36 weeks pregnant, Egan said.

Magers said incarcerated people and their family members are both reaching out to the Maryland Prisoners’ Rights Coalition to express fears and concerns about themselves or their loved ones.

“Family members are incredibly scared for the lives of their loved ones. They’re calling us at a rapid rate, completely traumatized by what is happening, what they’re seeing, what they’re hearing,” she said. “As well the people inside are reaching out, scared to death for their own life, literally begging us and asking us ‘Please don’t let us die in here.'”

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and the Department of Juvenile Services are already taking actions in response to COVID-19 at both agencies’ facilities, according to Mike Ricci, Hogan’s communications director.

The department of corrections is working with local jails to temporarily suspend new intakes and is also using its discretion to release a limited number of individuals and place them on home detention or pretrial release.

Individuals reentering the community would normally be transferred to a correctional facility closest to their home for release. But to limit inmate movement and the potential spread of COVID-19, the agency is releasing inmates directly from their holding facility and coordinating transportation for them back to their home.

Inmates with chronic health conditions will also receive a 60-day supply of medication instead of the regular 30-day supply upon release.

Meanwhile, the juvenile justice system has stopped all admissions and transfers of youth between the department’s facilities except for youth who are brought in due to an arrest. The department has also closed the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center to all admissions and is will be diverting new arrests to the Charles Hickey School in Baltimore County.

The department is also working to identify incarcerated youth who “may be safely managed in the community,” while considering the individual’s medical history, availability of family or other community support systems, and public safety. Local courts ultimately review a youth’s case to determine whether they can be released back to the community.

But Kumar told Baltimore Fishbowl on Thursday that these actions are “not responsive” to the what the coalition is seeking, and they pale in comparison to the scale to which the coalition is looking to reduce the number of incarcerated Marylanders.

“It is a drop in the bucket,” she said.

Kumar said Hogan could, for example, direct the parole commission to increase the number of people being granted parole or use his own clemency authority to reduce the incarcerated population.

“A Tweet about what they say they’re doing just does not come close to addressing the really clear obvious ways the state should have acted long ago and should be acting now to mitigate the spread of the virus in our places of detention,” she said.

Marcus Dieterle


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