Tyrone Walker of the Justice Policy Institute knows what social distancing looks like inside of a jail cell. He spent 24 years, eight months and 15 days living in one.
“There is no social distancing in that environment,” he said during a virtual news conference held Wednesday. “And I’ve never been inside of jail or prison that was sanitized.”
During his incarceration, Walker witnessed an MRSA outbreak and recalled living in congregate situations in fear of not knowing who was infected, armed mostly with a bar of soap.
“They are not following any CDC rules,” he said. “Why? Because CDC rules are for people in the community, not for prison sentences.”
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began to infiltrate the state nearly a month ago, a coalition of prisoners’ rights organizations, including the Justice Policy Institute, have asked Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) to take meaningful steps to decrease the risk of mass viral outbreaks in the state’s detention institutions, specifically calling for the depopulation of state and local facilities.
“It is impossible for correctional units to comply with CDC guidelines without reducing populations,” they wrote in their list of demands released Tuesday.
Advocates are pushing Hogan to direct state and local law enforcement agencies to limit arrests and pre-trial detention in instances where individuals do not pose an immediate threat to the community.
Additionally, they are asking that he free low-level offenders, those nearing their release dates, medically vulnerable populations and children held in state custody; work with released youth and adult populations to ensure they return to safe housing; and improve the living conditions for those who must remain behind bars, including suspending the ban on alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
In response to the coalition’s demands, Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci released procedure Wednesday evening that has been adopted at both adult and juvenile facilities in response to the pandemic.
According to Ricci, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has been collaborating with local jails to discontinue prisoner intake into state facilities during the pandemic.
Additionally, officials are releasing offenders directly from facilities rather than transferring them to “release hubs,” and are attempting to arrange transportation for them to return to their homes. At their release, they are being supplied with 60 days’ worth of required medication to ensure their extended continuity of care.
The Department of Juvenile Services has ceased the transfer and admission of youth into their facilities, except for instances where they are transported to intake by police officers following an arrest. They have halted intake services at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, and are rerouting new arrests to Baltimore County’s Charles Hickey School.
Support and other services for children released on probation are completed via audio and video calls. Supervised community detention occurs largely through electronic monitoring.
The department also stated that they are screening individuals who access their facilities, providing children and staff members with personal protective equipment, and have implemented protocols should an individual test positive for COVID-19.
Some officials have enforced a few of the coalition’s requests at a local level.
Last month, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby (D) directed city prosecutors to dismiss charges and release individuals facing time for non-violent offenses like traffic violations and prostitution.
Dr. Chris Beyrer of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health explained that there is evidence that the virus’ spread in correctional facilities is a “real public health problem,” citing an outbreak at Rikers Island Correctional Center in New York, as well as outbreaks in prisons in Wuhan, China.
Last month, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services temporarily suspended inmate visitation services in response to the pandemic.
At a March 19 news conference, the governor said that incarcerated individuals “are kind of protected and in quarantine,” further suggesting that “they’re safer where they are.”
Beyrer said that contrary to popular belief, prisons are not quarantined, and putting a moratorium on visits does not stop the spread of the virus, noting that shifts in staff throughout the day break that barrier.
“It has been the detention facility staff … who have been most effective, particularly at the beginning, and who are the most likely people to bring this virus in to these detained populations,” he said. “That happened in Wuhan, that happened at Rikers and the early evidence is that that is happening in Maryland.”
Family members are scared of what may happen to their incarcerated loved ones as well.
“Imagine yourself walking into a walk-in closet in the average-sized home, that’s the size of a cell,” said Lifer Family Support Network Co-Founder Martina Hazelton.
Hazelton’s husband is being held at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland. She said that because of the pandemic, he’s not getting appropriate care for his hypertension.
“So COVID has taken a front seat to everything and everything else has gone by the wayside,” she said, adding that he is in fear of what may happen to him should he become infected.
“Everybody in there is scared — they’re all scared. They feel like they’re sitting ducks.”
Hazelton’s organization in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and other advocacy groups filed a petition Monday night in the state Court of Appeals asking for the release of prisoners who are most at risk of contracting COVID-19.
ACLU Maryland Senior Staff Attorney Sonia Kumar said that advocates were left with no choice but to take that action.
“For weeks, the state has … demonstrated that it has no coordinated plan, despite weeks of urging by public health experts, corrections experts, corrections staff, law enforcement, advocates, lawyers, people inside and their families,” she said.
Kumar called Hogan’s lack of action in state correctional facilities a “real blind spot.”
“The governor and the state ha[ve] been lauded in many respects for its swift response to COVID, its broad response to COVID,” she said. “There’s been a glaring omission when it comes to the work that needs to be done relating to our places of detention.”
‘Happy to be doing this’?
Some incarcerated adults have been put to work during the pandemic making cloth face masks, including one worn by Hogan at a news conference held at the Baltimore Convention Center field hospital Tuesday.
“They’re very happy to be doing this and to be a part of the solution and excited to be, you know, in some way helping their fellow Marylanders,” Hogan said.
Kumar called the governor’s choice to sport facial wear made by prison laborers “unconscionable,” citing the state’s lack of response to protect incarcerated individuals paired with their inability to wear the masks themselves.
Neill Franklin, executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership and a retired Maryland State Police major, said that the inmates should have access to personal protective equipment because of their inability to socially distance.
“If the incarcerated in our penal institution and DOC are making these masks, they should be the first ones to get to wear them, along with correctional officers,” he said.
Hazelton said that inmates are paid “cents an hour” to manufacture the masks.
Maryland Matters has reached out to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to inquire about the pay rate but has yet to receive a response.
A similar relief request on behalf of youths held in state facilities was filed last Friday.
The Maryland Office of the Public Defender petitioned the state’s Court of Appeals to depopulate and reduce admissions at youth facilities.
Jenny Egan, chief attorney of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Juvenile Division, said that the Department of Juvenile Services currently has over 350 children in its custody, some of whom suffer from chronic asthma. One is currently 36 weeks pregnant.
Egan stated that two of the department’s facilities closed in March, including the J. Deweese Carter Women’s Center in Kent County, which she said was shuttered after food vendors pulled their services.
Earlier this week, a staff member at the Lower Eastern Shore Children’s Center in Salisbury tested positive for COVID-19.
“We are asking the Court of Appeals, but also the governor and everyone in charge of these institutions to do something today. Do not wait,” she said. “You have power, you have discretion and you have the ability to save lives today. And we are pleading with you to save the lives of those who are incarcerated.”
By Hannah Gaskill