Few Maryland prisoners eligible for early release as coronavirus spreads behind bars

As the coronavirus spreads in Maryland prisons, Baltimore defense attorney Natalie Finegar continues to receive phone calls from worried former clients behind bars.

They hear people are being released from local jails because of the virus. Can they be freed from state prisons, too?


“We tell them that we don’t really have a clear sense of what we can do inside the [Department of Corrections],” Finegar said.

While prosecutors, public defenders and criminal justice advocates have called for the release of nonviolent offenders during the pandemic, the small number of inmates actually set free have come mostly from local jails — not state prisons where the virus has been more rampant. Two orders this week from Maryland’s chief judge, Mary Ellen Barbera, don’t change this: She encouraged the release of nonviolent youths and adults, instructing the trial courts to consider coronavirus a factor in decisions. But state’s attorneys say they already have been working to identify and set free the small number of men and women in local jails who qualify for early release.


Meanwhile, state prison officials say the number of coronavirus infections has increased to 136 people who either serve time or work in 10 Maryland prisons. They counted the largest number, 40 cases, at the Jessup Correctional Institution. A prisoner in his 60s died of the virus there last week.

“People who are in the Department of Corrections aren’t here for shoplifting. They either have a really bad record or they did a really bad crime."

—  Scott Shellenberger

Nearly 18,400 people are serving time or awaiting trial in state prisons, a department spokesman said. In general, these men and women are not candidates for early release because of the corornavirus. They are serving longer terms for more serious crimes.

“People who are in the Department of Corrections aren’t here for shoplifting,” Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said. “They either have a really bad record or they did a really bad crime."

Whether in a state prison or local jail, inmates live together in close quarters, making precautions such as social distancing difficult. Since the virus spread in Maryland, inmates have become worried about their safety. Some have fashioned masks out of clothing; others have shouted out their fears from open widows.

Coronavirus outbreaks have run rampant behind bars, sickening hundreds of guards and inmates in New York prisons, including the Rikers Island jail, and the Cook County Jail in Chicago.

In Maryland, Shellenberger and other state’s attorneys have released some people awaiting trial or finishing a prison sentence in a local jail. Top prosecutors from Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties say they generally do not have the authority to intervene and set free the men and women serving time in state prisons.

In most cases, there is no reason for these prisoners to be called back before a judge. An inmate must have filed a motion to modify his or her sentence, and such a motion usually must be filed within 90 days of a sentencing hearing.

“The judiciary can act on cases that are in front of them, but they don’t really have a lot of power over cases that are not in front of them,” Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson said.


Instead, Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland Parole Commission have the power to release state prisoners. Members of the Parole Commission did not return messages through a spokesman. Hogan, meanwhile, has publicly expressed a reluctance to release state prisoners, saying “they’re safer where they are."

Maryland’s Congressional delegation sent a letter to Hogan Thursday, urging him and the Parole Commission to identify and release state prisoners who pose no danger to the public.

“The sharp increase in confirmed cases of COVID-19 amongst the state’s prison population illustrates the need for more action,” they wrote.

At a news conference in Annapolis on Friday, Hogan said he was “obviously concerned about potential outbreaks” in the prisons.

But, he added, “I’m not sure how many more letters we need to get" about the issue.

Of the state’s attorneys, Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby alone has publicly called on Hogan to release prisoners. Her office also has recommended the courts release 114 people awaiting trial, about half of them for allegedly violating their probation. These people still will stand trial, Mosby said. Her office found another 40 people should be released early because they were within 90 days of finishing their sentence.


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“It’s a drop in the bucket,” she said, “which is why I’ve been calling on the governor to use his power and his authority to really make a dent in this.”

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said Maryland was one of the first states to suspend all visits to state prisons, volunteer programs and intakes from the local jails. Authorities also are distributing face masks to state prisoners, he said.

“With every decision the governor makes, he has in mind the health and safety of Marylanders, including our incarcerated population,” Ricci said.

Meanwhile, in Baltimore County, Shellenberger said his staff has reviewed cases of everyone held at the local jail who is older than 60, locked up for a nonviolent crime, or suffering health problems. They decided to release between 50 and 75 people.

County jails are generally smaller than state prisons and vary in size, from as many as 1,300 people in the Baltimore County Detention Center to between 200 and 300 at the Harford County Detention Center.

In Anne Arundel, State’s Attorney Anne Colt Leitess said her office conducted its own review and released at least 40 people awaiting trial. Howard County’s Gibson released four people, his spokeswoman said.


Carroll County State’s Attorney Brian DeLeonardo said his office released about 45 people. And Harford County State’s Attorney Al Peisinger Jr. said he knew of no releases, but he’s allowing people serving weekends in jail to postpone the start of their terms.