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MD Corrections Agency Confirms New COVID-19 Cases, As Advocates Warn Of An Outbreak

Rachel Baye / WYPR

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which oversees state prisons and jails and parole and probation services, has confirmed that 17 people have tested positive for COVID-19, including three inmates and four correctional officers.

Advocates have warned that prisons, jails and other detention facilities are especially vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses. They are pushing for some inmates to be released early to prevent a widespread outbreak, which could strain an already overburdened healthcare system.

The possibility of an outbreak scares Kaira Hudson, whose husband has been in the Harford County Detention Center for a few months while awaiting trial on multiple charges. She said her husband has asthma, and she knows he is at greater risk in the jail than he would be at home with her and their 3 year old.

“People is really dying from this, and I'm scared,” she said. “This is our lives that we’re talking about — their lives. They're still people, even though that they're locked up.”

Hudson isn’t able to visit her husband because the jail, like other corrections facilities around the state, restricted visitors in response to the pandemic. But she talks to him regularly. When he complained of a headache and body aches, she wondered if he could have COVID-19. 

Inside the jail, inmates have access to bar soap, but no hand sanitizer or surface disinfectants. 

There’s not much Hudson can say to comfort her husband, she said.

“We just pray,” she said. “I tell him just have faith. Keep his faith. You know, as long as you got your faith, everything will be OK.”

Prisons and jails are especially vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses, and some Maryland prisons have already reported confirmed cases of COVID-19. Advocates are pushing for certain inmates to be released early to prevent a widespread outbreak. They warn that such an outbreak could strain an already overburdened healthcare system.

“Prisons and jails are perfect incubators for the spread of this virus among human populations,” said Leonard Rubenstein, who specializes in epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “People are housed very close together. … They have congregate meals, and the correction officers have no choice but to have close contact with the inmate.”

Last week, Rubenstein helped to organize a letter, signed by nearly 200 Johns Hopkins faculty, urging Go. Larry Hogan to make several changes inside jails and prisons to prevent an outbreak.

Whatever measures are implemented inside the facilities, one of the best ways to prevent the virus from spreading is to reduce the number of people in detention,” Rubenstein said.

“There are other things that can be done,” he said. “Testing people when they go in, using masks by staff, making sure soap is available and hand-washing is more accessible to prisoners. But that is not really going to be as effective if the population is large.”

To reduce prison and jail populations, the Maryland Office of the Public Defender and several advocacy groups are calling for state and local detention facilities to limit new admissions and to release inmates who are near the ends of their sentences or have health conditions that put them at greater risk.

“We’re concerned about all of our clients being incarcerated during this period, particularly the ones that aren’t violent criminals and the ones being held on rather minor offenses,” said Kelly Casper, the Harford County public defender.

Casper’s office has filed dozens of motions with the county courts to try to get new bail review hearings for people awaiting trial from inside the jail and sentence modifications for people who are immunosuppressed. But Maryland has postponed most court proceedings as a result of the outbreak, and Casper’s success has been mixed.

“The state’s attorneys are objecting to pretty much every single one we file,” Casper said. “Some of the District Court judges have been pretty good about bails, but for the most part, the Circuit Court judges just deny every single one of them.”

In Baltimore City, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has taken a different approach than some of her fellow prosecutors. She announced that her office would stop prosecuting several nonviolent crimes, such as drug possession or trafficking, prostitution and trespassing. 

In a letter to Hogan last week, she called for the release of certain inmates, as well as steps that would allow the remaining inmates to spread out inside detention facilities. The letter was also signed by the Maryland public defender and several other advocates.

At a press conference last week, Hogan was asked about the idea of releasing nonviolent offenders to reduce prison populations.

“The last thing we want to do is release people that are now kind of in quarantine out onto the streets,” Hogan said. “It wouldn’t be safe for them. So it’s kind of the opposite of what we’re doing.”

That was before the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services confirmed the first COVID-19 cases on Monday. They have since confirmed 17 cases in Baltimore, Hagerstown and Jessup.

The department declined WYPR’s request for an interview. In a written statement provided this week — after the initial confirmed cases of the virus — spokesman Mark Vernarelli said releasing inmates is “a very complex issue involving many agencies, the courts, and the federal government.” 

In Harford County, Sheriff Jeff Gahler is more direct about his stance on releasing inmates.

“They're coming back out to the street, they reoffend, which further victimizes our society, has a further demand on law enforcement and ends them back up into the same place where we started,” Gahler said. “So that would be part of my consideration of any effort just to open the doors and say go free.”

Ultimately decisions about releasing inmates early are up to the courts, Gahler said.

He said the Harford County Detention Center has taken steps to protect both staff and inmates. All staff are screened and have their temperatures taken as they enter. The same goes for new inmates when they are first admitted. 

New inmates stay in the “intake unit,” separate from the rest of the population, for two weeks. While there, they have their temperature taken up to three times a day.

Housing areas are cleaned three times a day by the inmates, Gahler said, and antibacterial soap has been distributed throughout the jail. Staff also have antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizer.

“I know we just had a discussion last week about trying to get everybody their own — every inmate their own bottle of hand sanitizer,” Gahler said.

Vernarelli said state prisons also have “enhanced cleaning procedures” and gave inmates “extra soap at no cost.” Soap is usually something inmates purchase through their commissary. 

And he said they are screening staff at every shift. 

But Oluwadamilol Olaniyan, a correctional officer at Jessup Correctional Institution, questioned whether these actions are enough.

“You still have inmates that go to dining rooms en masse,” Olaniyan said. “I mean you can imagine a whole bunch of inmates on the line, in dining rooms, side by side.”

Though he said staff are being screened and having their temperatures taken, the people doing the screening are their supervisors, not medical professionals.

And the department initially provided hand sanitizer to the staff, but when it ran out, they didn’t replace it, Olaniyan said. “So staff now bring their own hand sanitizers.”

Rubenstein said an outbreak inside a detention facility isn’t just bad news for the inmates and staff. Prisons and jails are not entirely closed off to the rest of the community. Staff and lawyers come and go, as do inmates when they are admitted or released.

“If we’re going to seriously protect the community, through social distancing and other measures, you have to consider these institutions as part of the community,” he said. 

An outbreak could strain the already limited healthcare resources the wider community relies on. If inmates get sick, correctional officers need personal protective equipment, like masks, that are in short supply. And if inmates or staff need to go to the hospital, they go to the same hospitals as everyone else.

“There may be a wall to keep people in, but the virus doesn’t respect it,” Rubenstein said.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom. @RachelBaye
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