As the number of cases of coronavirus in the state prison system jumped to 136, the state’s Congressional delegation joined together to urge Gov. Larry Hogan to take swift action to corral what they called the “rapidly spreading outbreak."
The new figures, updated Wednesday evening, represent a nearly 50% increase from numbers reported by the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services just two days earlier.
“In light of recent reports that an inmate has died of complications due to COVID-19, we urge you to take aggressive actions to stop the further spread of this virus amongst the state’s prison population, the delegation, led by U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, wrote in an open letter to Hogan.
While the letter praises the state’s effort to improve hygiene in the prison system, it notes that the increasing numbers and the first reported death earlier this week show more needs to be done.
“We urge you to strongly consider the recommendations of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh that you exercise your commutation power by working with the Maryland Parole Commission to identify and accelerate the release of inmates who pose little risk to public safety," the letter read.
They added that in addition to slowing the spread among inmates, the action would "not only protect correctional officers, first responders, and inmates, but also our state at large.”
A total of 72 correctional officers and 31 inmates have been reported as having the virus. The other confirmed cases include contract workers and staff not working directly inside correctional facilities, according to department spokesperson Mark Vernarelli.
The Jessup Correctional Institution has the most cases with 40, and an inmate at the facility died from the virus, the state reported Monday. That same day the state reported a total of 93 cases systemwide.
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At Jessup, 13 inmates, 16 officers and 11 contract employees have contracted COVID-19.
Following complaints from inmates in other prisons, Patrick Moran, Council 3 president of AFSCME, which represents some prison employees, also called Thursday for Hogan to provide correctional officers with N95 masks as opposed to the personal protective equipment that has been made inmates in the facilities.
The masks made by the inmates are made out of a polyester-type material, which Moran called “inadequate.”
“They are sneeze guards, not masks. They are asking people to use these over and over again,” Moran said. “If Governor Hogan has a mask to walk around the empty convention center, then I would think that he could provide proper masks to the people doing the work and in the trenches every day."
The letter from the state’s congressional delegation represents their strongest effort to slow the spread inside Maryland’s prison. Besides Van Hollen and Cardin, U.S. Representatives Jamie Raskin, Steny Hoyer, John Sarbanes, Anthony Brown, David Trone, and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger signed on to the letter.
“The only proven method of slowing the spread of COVID-19 to date, social distancing, faces significant hurdles where populations are concentrated, such as correctional facilities,” the letter said. “It is with this recognition that the Department of Justice and governors across the country have begun to reduce the size of prison populations.”
This comes just a day after a federal judge ordered the emergency release of Derrick Boone, a Baltimore inmate awaiting trial.
A previous version of this article had the incorrect number of cases in the correctional system. There are at least 136. The Sun regrets the error.