As the coronavirus outbreak has spread in Maryland’s prisons and jails – resulting in the first death of an inmate – the people who live and work in them say they feel unprotected and vulnerable.
“We walk in there every day thinking we have this virus,” said Oluwadamilol Olaniyan, a correctional officer at Jessup Correctional Institution, where state officials say an inmate in his 60s died on Saturday from complications from COVID-19.
No test kits are available yet at JCI, though temperature screening is taking place for officers as they enter the facility. And a tent to quarantine sick inmates was under construction outside the facility last week.
According to Olaniyan, the inmates are making masks – for themselves and employees.
One lawyer, meanwhile, says his inmate clients are reporting close contact with staffers without proper protective equipment.
“I have heard about guards not wearing masks and gloves,” Baltimore attorney C. Justin Brown told The Brew. “Because a lot of people’s movement is restricted, I’ve heard about situations where they have to rely on guards to bring them food without masks or gloves.”
Brown said he was hearing these reports within the last week. This comes despite what officials say is a policy requiring staff to wear gloves on the job.
Inmates and staff alike say they want more protection – masks, gloves, testing, isolation measures – to save them from a potentially lethal infection.
“Our concern is to see more preventive measures,” Olaniyan said. “I want to see additional preparation, so I don’t give the virus to my family.”
Hogan: Prison is Safer
So far there have been 93 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus among inmates, officers and contractors at state prisons, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services announced Monday.
A coalition of advocates has been warning for weeks that state and local detention facilities are especially vulnerable to the disease.
Release of ill or older inmates, as well as those nearing the end of their sentences, could go a long way toward lessening the chance of crowded facilities turning into virus hotspots, say groups that include the ACLU of Maryland, Attorney General Brian Frosh and the Office of the Public Defender.
But Governor Larry Hogan has rebuffed these entreaties, describing prison as a safer place for inmates than wherever they would go upon release.
“The last thing we want to do is release people that are now kind-of in quarantine out onto the streets,” Hogan said at a press conference late last month.
“It wouldn’t be safe for them. So it’s kind of the opposite of what we’re doing.”
Yesterday, Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera added her voice to the mix, ordering trial courts to identify and release prisoners who are at risk for the coronavirus and pose no threat to public safety.
In a statement announcing her order, she called on Hogan to use his authority to grant widespread clemency.
“Marylanders must be aware that this process is slow, involves a case-by-case assessment and is in no way a substitute for the swift and decisive action the governor can take,” she said.
Barbera described Hogan’s failure to grant clemency as “disconcerting.”
Hogan’s stance has also earned him poor marks from those otherwise inclined to applaud his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Gov. Larry Hogan is my public health hero in most regards, but in terms of issues related to prisons, this is where disaster can and is happening,” said Sarah Bur, a retired infection prevention and control officer for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Detention facilities, like Chicago’s Cook County Jail, are fighting epic battles with the virus.
“The biggest and most important thing that should have happened is reduction of population in prisons,” Bur told The Brew.
Across the country, detention facilities like Chicago’s Cook County Jail are fighting epic battles with the virus – more than 500 people have tested positive there, a rate higher than anywhere in the country.
Bur noted that the process of releasing prisoners to stave off outbreaks is “political and complicated,” but that there are places, like Maryland, where “there still might be time.”
Prisons as “Petri Dishes”
Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Council 3, the largest labor union for Maryland state employees, confirmed a lack of testing within the prison system – facilities he likened to “petri dishes.”
“They aren’t testing correctional officers, contractual medical employees, or inmates unless they are displaying symptoms,” he said.
“We are demanding that they test everyone now and often, so we can get a better handle on this and get people out of harm’s way. We don’t want it being spread to members’ families.”
Asked if there are any plans for prisons and institutions to get testing capabilities soon, a department of corrections spokesperson, Mark Vernarelli, said, “I’m afraid I don’t have any information on testing right now.”
Vernarelli added that no inmates will be released anytime soon to mitigate the spread of the virus, mentioning the “very complex” process involving “multiple criminal justice agencies and the courts.”
“Hogan has left it largely to agency heads, and they are woefully unprepared,” says top labor leader.
AFSCME: State Agencies Adrift
“There has been no indication that the department of corrections will change their ways; it is a big problem,” Moran said.
Like Bur, the union leader said Hogan deserves praise for his high-profile social distance messaging and policies.
But he is not following up his words with smart and pro-active management “when it comes to the facilities he is responsible for, such as prisons, mental hospitals, youth centers and offices that the public has to go to such as food stamp offices,” Moran said.
“State agencies have been very slow in terms of adapting to everything Hogan has been recommending publicly,” he told The Brew. “That is disconcerting and reckless. Hogan has left it largely to agency heads, and they are woefully unprepared.”
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