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COVID outbreak hits Baltimore jail even as state ramps up inmate vaccinations; advocates turn to court seeking information

A COVID outbreak has struck Baltimore’s jail even as 70% of all Maryland prison inmates have received at least one vaccine dose, according to state records and court filings by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The state’s failure to provide facility-specific infection and vaccination data is hindering efforts to understand what’s happening inside the jail or hold officials accountable, the ACLU claims. The filing is the latest in a series since last April, weeks into the pandemic, seeking better protections for Maryland inmates, and is an extension of a decades-old lawsuit against the state over prisoner civil rights.

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The Maryland Department of Safety and Correctional Services is refusing to provide vaccination totals for city jail inmates, the ACLU alleged in a federal court filing, adding that it has been seeking the information since February. The motion asks the court to order weekly updates regarding the number of COVID-19 vaccines given, offered and refused by inmates there.

The Baltimore City Booking and Intake Center has the most active cases in the state, according to the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. As of April 30, the most recent data, 24 inmates at the jail and eight staff members have confirmed cases.

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In its filing, the ACLU cited the outbreak to argue that Maryland must disclose how many vaccines have been given in the jail.

“This is basic information we are asking for: How many of our clients have been vaccinated?” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, in an interview Friday.

The ACLU filing outlines a series of emails and conversations with the corrections department after the state notified the ACLU in April that that there were at least 17 active cases at the jail. The department provided vague or nonresponsive answers, the filing alleged, and at times didn’t respond at all.

“As of May 7, 2021, Plaintiffs have not received any responsive documents regarding COVID-19 vaccination of detainees,” the filing says.

A spokesperson for the prison system did not respond to questions Friday about the lawsuit.

The filing is not the first time lawyers representing inmates have turned to the court system. On April 15, the state agreed in a settlement to offer all inmates at the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore vaccines by May 1, and said the facility would undergo monthly independent inspections. Chesapeake is a state-run facility housing federal inmates.

The ACLU filing comes as state corrections officials report a sharp increase in vaccinations administered to Maryland’s approximately 18,000 inmates.

As of the start of this month, 8,348 inmates have received their first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination, and an additional 4,527 have been fully vaccinated, according to a letter sent this week from Robert L. Green, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, to two Maryland elected officials.

Green was responding to requests for information from state Sen. Jill Carter representing the Baltimore area and Montgomery County Del. David Moon, both Democrats, who said they were seeking more transparency about the rollout of vaccinations to inmates.

Green wrote that the department “continues to receive weekly allocations” of vaccine and provide them to incarcerated people 16 and older who “wish to receive” the vaccine.

Green added that 3,237 inmates refused the first dose of vaccination and that the bulk of refusals occurred in April as eligibility was expanded from older and high-risk groups to all inmates.

Last month, the department confirmed four more COVID-19 related deaths of inmates in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, all housed in different facilities, who died between February and March.

As of April 30, a total of 29 inmates have died from contracting COVID-19, according to department numbers. At least three correctional officers have died from the virus.

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