Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and other groups on Wednesday urged state officials to better protect the youth and adults incarcerated in jails and prisons from the deadly COVID-19.
Tyrone Walker of the Justice Policy Institute emphasized at a press conference that it is impossible for inmates, staff and guards to follow social distancing of 6 feet as mandated by Gov. Larry Hogan and other state and federal officials. In jails and prisons, inmates are confined to a small space and operate in groups, whether showering, eating or socializing during recreational time.
“I spent 24 years 8 months and 15 days inside,” said Walker. “There is no social distancing in that environment. I have never been inside a jail or prison that has been sanitized.”
On Monday, the ACLU of Maryland filed an emergency court petition asking the Maryland Court of Appeals to guide officials around the state to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in places of detention. They asked for a reduction in the number of inmates.
While the state of Maryland has taken extreme measures to slow down COVID-19, coalition officials said jails and prisons are not receiving guidance.
“Maryland has failed almost completely to act in any coordinated way to prevent COVID-19 from spreading rapidly through correctional facilities and overwhelming medical resources in nearby communities,” the petition alleged.
In a declaration filed with the court supporting the petition, Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said: “An outbreak in prison could have a devastating impact on public health far beyond the prison walls.
“Staff who enter and leave the facility could transmit the virus to the broader community and demands for intensive care beds and ventilators could overwhelm local hospitals and health care providers,” Benjamin said. “It is essential at this time that all steps are taken to reduce infection and to ‘flatten the curve’ to ensure that our health care system does not collapse.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended basic guidelines to slow the spread of the virus, such as washing hands with soap and water, using hand sanitizer if there’s no soap and water available, avoiding close contact with people and keeping areas sanitized. Based on CDC guidelines, those at high risk are mainly people 65 years and older, people with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma, diabetes and serious heart conditions.
“Numerous witnesses report that the DPSCS has not been providing adequate supply of soap across the system with specific reports from Roxbury, Eastern, Western and Jessup Correctional Institutions — and that other hygienic practices remain insufficient,” the petition charged. “The bars of soap to which DOC refers are tiny, hotel-sized bars and individuals do not have the ability to wash their hands when outside of their cells.”
In another supporting declaration, Chris Beyrer, professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said Hogan and local correctional officials have not applied measures to follow CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus in these facilities.
“The evidence concerning COVID-19 indicates that once it enters a detention center it spreads significantly faster inside the detention center than outside,” he said.
Martina Hazelton, whose husband is incarcerated in a facility in Cumberland, stressed that COVID-19 affects those incarcerated tremendously.
“Over the five days since the first case of COVID-19 was detected at one Maryland prison on March 30, reported positive results rose to 17 in different state facilities, as well as one in a local jail. Given the lack of testing in these facilities and rapid spread of the virus, there is no doubt that the numbers of people infected are actually higher.”
Julie Magers of the Maryland Prisoners’ Rights Coalition said, “There are a ton of noticeably sick individuals and the medical department is not addressing the fact that they have a fever or expressing symptoms and they are not reporting it.”
Magers added that medical contractors are not wearing personal protective equipment when they deliver medication.
Children also are among the many incarcerated in Maryland who are vulnerable during this outbreak.
On Friday, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender filed a writ of mandamus with the Court of Appeals seeking relief for incarcerated children.
Jenny Egan of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender told the press conference there are children as young as 11 years old locked in cages and cells around the state who require medical assistance.
“The risk isn’t just that children can get severely sick and die, although that is a real risk, the risk is to all of us, pandemics and outbreaks in prison don’t stay in prisons,” said Egan.
Egan added that there are staff members constantly in the units, while health professionals are in and out of the facility.
“The only way to protect people inside is to drastically reduce the numbers of people who are there,” she said. “Although some people will remain in prisons and jails in order to make the facility and our communities safe, the court will have to take dramatic action.”
The Maryland Coalition asked the state to:
- Stop new admissions to every correctional unit within the state.
- Release every incarcerated person who can be safely released to their community, prioritizing the most medically vulnerable.
- Get children out of incarceration and back into their communities
- Support children and adults who are released in accessing reentry services, health care and housing.
- Improve safety conditions for those who remain incarcerated, including having health professionals conduct health screenings and provide sufficient hygiene supplies.