Schools, colleges and government agencies nationwide are taking preemptive measures against the spread of the COVID-19 virus, with doctors warning people to avoid close contact and not gather in large groups.
But one population is particularly vulnerable because they can’t do that. Inmates at Maryland’s jails and prisons are stuck in incubators that become prime space for the rapid spread of the virus, experts said.
And so far, measures taken by Maryland are not enough to protect the inmate population in case the virus strikes, health experts and advocates for inmates said.
The Maryland correctional department said no cases have been reported in the state’s jails and prisons, although a spokesman for the department said he has no information that any inmate has been tested.
Thursday afternoon, Gov. Larry Hogan did institute a big change, ordering that all visits to state prisons be stopped immediately.
Earlier Thursday, the state’s department of corrections said it hadn’t taken measures outside of actively educating its staff, inmates and visitors about taking proper precautions. That includes washing hands thoroughly, using hand sanitizers, and avoiding contact with sick people, according to department spokesman Mark Vernarelli.
Nazgol Ghandnoosh, senior research analyst with the Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C. based research and advocacy center, said inmates in prison and jail settings are particularly at risk because of the constant flow of new inmates, guards coming in from the outside and people coming to the facilities to visit inmates.
She said the suggestions for more washing and cleanliness provided by MDOC are similar to those offered by prisons nationwide.
“It is sort of along the lines of what I have seen in other correctional institutions. They are transferring over plans that they had previously established for the flu," Ghandnoosh said in an interview. “In a place like Maryland where we know there are a lot of obstacles in place for older people to release from prison, this is a way to find a way around that."
She said elderly inmates who may not pose any real threat to society should be released with home monitoring whenever possible during an outbreak such as this one.
There have been a total of 12 cases reported in Maryland. Health officials report they have tested 94 people for COVID-19, which the World Health Orgranization deemed a pandemic Wednesday. More cases are expected as the testing ramps up.
Dr. Homer Venters, a New York based president of the Community Oriented Correctional Health Services, a group focused on healthcare in jails, said jails and prisons have special risks that other spaces may not have. The threat is particularly acute for elderly patients or those suffering from chronic illness -a common problem in many prisons.
“Jails and prisons promote spread. Generally these are filthy, dirty places," Venters said. “One of the simplest tools to combat an outbreak is hand washing. Many people in prisons and jails don’t have access. Many sinks are broken or don’t have soap or paper towels. Often there are no sinks.
"Think of intake areas, teeming pens of 30 to 40 to 50 people in a room with a concrete floor that people lie on and no place to wash.”
Venters said to combat the problem, facilities need to develop plans if inmates become sick. Venters said correctional facilities “drive up the curve” of more potential virus cases.
“If people develop symptoms, they will be housed in isolation. If they are diagnosed they have to go to a third place for quarantine. If they become ill there will have to be taken to the hospital,” Venters said. “This requires the ability to move people around, a difficult process ordinarily and harder when they are infectious.”
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch, a New York based research and advocacy organization, said authorities in the United States need to “consider supervised release and other non-custodial alternatives" for detainees who are at high risk of infection, in a press release.
The organization says protecting inmates also protects staff from the infection.
“People behind bars are often forgotten by society during a crisis, but protecting their health is crucial for protecting overall public health,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US Program executive director at Human Rights Watch in a press release.
“Protecting people in custody also protects staff and visitors from those facilities who return to their communities each day.”
Baltimore Sun Reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this story.