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Maryland prisoners on edge as coronavirus threat grows and courts consider how to release some inmates

As the coronavirus pandemic ravages Maryland and the number of cases in its jails and prisons grow, inmate Travis Gary says little has changed inside to indicate corrections officials are doing enough to address the risk.

He now has a bunkmate in his cell after living alone, making social distancing difficult. Four washing machines are broken, prison officials said, and Gary’s seen no urgency to fix them. No face masks have been provided, so he fashioned one out of a pair of long johns.

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“The conditions are filthy. They are not giving us masks. The only thing they are doing is taking our temperature," Gary said in a recent phone interview from the Baltimore City Correctional Center, where he’s been held on weapons and drug charges since 2017.

Inmates and guards in Maryland’s prisons and jails, and their families, say officials have not taken sufficient steps to protect them from COVID-19, even as the illness has killed its first inmate — a man in his 60s who died Saturday at the Jessup Correctional Institution. The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services announced that death Monday, along with the tally of 93 cases among inmates, officers and contractors at state prisons, a fivefold increase since April 3.

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On Tuesday, Maryland Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera ordered the trial courts to identify and release prisoners statewide who are at-risk for the coronavirus and pose no threat to public safety. With her order, Barbera opens the door for prisoners to be released on a case-by-case basis, although the full impact of the move likely won’t be clear for days.

Some of America’s prisons and jails have become infested with the virus. The Cook County jail in Chicago is the nation’s top hotspot for infections, according to data tracked by The New York Times.

So far, Gov. Larry Hogan has not heeded calls from civil rights groups, medical leaders and prosecutors including Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to sharply reduce the prison population.

All have called on Hogan to release certain older, immuno-compromised and parole-eligible prisoners. They also called for additional steps to regulate Maryland’s prison facilities, including providing sanitizing wipes at phone stations to reduce person-to-person transmission.

Hogan has ignored the calls so far, and the prison system says that it is properly caring for inmates and ramping up efforts to provide staff and prisoners with proper protective equipment and sanitizer.

“Every inmate is in the process of receiving a sneeze guard [protective face mask],” said Mark Vernarelli, a corrections department spokesman. “Incarcerated individuals in quarantine or isolation, due to suspected or confirmed exposure to COVID-19, are provided surgical masks for the protection of themselves and others.”

Inmates such as Gary said much of the information that has been given out by the Maryland Division of Corrections does not reflect reality. Outside of the Baltimore City Correctional Center last week, inmates could be heard shouting through open windows about their fear of contracting the virus.

Gary’s wife, Felicia Gary, said her husband used to be in a single cell, but since the outbreak the facility added another inmate. Gary said neither man has been tested, and that they each received only a small bar of soap, about the size you’d get in a hotel room, two months ago. The ration hasn’t changed, even as officials call for staff and inmates to wash their hands more than ever, Gary said.

Gary is especially concerned about coronavirus risk, he said, because he has asthma; if he contracts COVID-19, he has a higher chance of becoming very ill, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Felicia Gary, pictured holding her wedding picture outside the State's Baltimore City Correctional Center on Greenmount Avenue on Tuesday April 7, is very concern about her husband Travis Gary's safety during the COVID-19 pandemic while serving time in jail. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam
Felicia Gary, pictured holding her wedding picture outside the State's Baltimore City Correctional Center on Greenmount Avenue on Tuesday April 7, is very concern about her husband Travis Gary's safety during the COVID-19 pandemic while serving time in jail. Photo by: Kenneth K. Lam (Kenneth K. Lam)

Another inmate in the Baltimore City Correctional Center, John Waters III, said he also suffers from asthma and fears for his health and life. In a telephone interview, Waters, who has not been tested, said he often walks around using a mask he made out of a hat.

Waters, 28, who was sent to prison in 2017, according to Maryland court records, said he was approved for work-release in February and believes his “safety and health are not only in jeopardy, but in serious threat."

Waters was charged with armed robbery and firearm offenses in 2016, court records show.

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“I have been nothing but positive throughout my entire sentence, but I don’t want this to be the last chapter of my life,” said Waters, adding that he wants to see his 3-year-old son.

The department has not confirmed any cases inside the Baltimore City Correctional Center.

The union representing corrections officers also has complained that members have been left out of the loop on news of coronavirus cases inside prisons.

“It is tragic that at a time where transparency and teamwork are at a premium, officers must continue to receive word of new suspected and confirmed COVID-19 through word-of-mouth rather than their supervisors and the wardens,” said Patrick Moran, AFSCME Council 3 President.

The union says the department can and should “take action today” to protect officers and inmates or many will “lose their life due to their inaction.”

The American Civil Liberties Union last week again petitioned for prisoners to be released, saying the reluctance to do so is a “blind spot” in Maryland leadership.

“Prisons and jails are not hermetically sealed. Once the virus enters a detention center, the regular movement of staff in and out of the facility means that the virus will spread back to the community,” the petition reads.

Prison officials say they are taking inmates’ safety seriously.

Staff at all Maryland corrections facilities are required to wear more protective gear. Each correctional employee is provided a face shield, gloves and a protective face mask, also referred to as a sneeze guard, Vernarelli said.

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The corrections department is prioritizing protective equipment for prisoners at facilities where people have tested positive for the virus, he said.

Vernarelli said last week that the department is making more protective equipment, including 12,000 sneeze guards, 10,000 plastic face shields, 1,400 gowns and 2,000 bottles of hand sanitizer.

After a person tests positive, the department’s COVID-19 response team begins “contact tracing” to locate any staff member, inmate, detainee, or others who may have had contact, Vernarelli said.

But prisoner advocates and health officials said nothing will be enough if the prison population isn’t drastically reduced soon.

Leonard Rubenstein, director of the program on Human Rights, Health and Conflict for Johns Hopkins University, said there needs to be equal effort for releasing prisoners and keeping them safe while they remain inside.

“Getting them out makes more space in the facilities, but regardless, make sure the people in the facility have the proper means to protect themselves,” he said. “That means things like soap, hand sanitizer and masks should be readily available.”

As of April 3, nearly 60 inmates have been released from Baltimore jails according to the Maryland Judiciary. The release of inmates began March 18 and has continued since. The defendants released were awaiting trial in the Baltimore City Detention Center, the judiciary said.

The judiciary did not respond to a request for updated inmate release numbers.

Felicia Gary holds a picture of her husband outside the Baltimore City Correctional Center. She is worried about her husband, Travis Gary, and other inmates amid coronavirus.
Felicia Gary holds a picture of her husband outside the Baltimore City Correctional Center. She is worried about her husband, Travis Gary, and other inmates amid coronavirus. (Kenneth K. Lam)

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