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Coronavirus cases double in a month among Maryland’s prison population; inmate death toll increases to 14

A 14th Maryland prisons inmate has died of COVID-19 as the total number of infections among state prisoners has more than doubled in a month, from 1,033 to 2,173, according to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Total cases among staff have also spiked, though not as dramatically, to 1,255. Two correctional officers have died to date.

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The inmate who died last week was a man in his 70s at Cumberland’s Western Correctional Institution, according to the department. He had been hospitalized since November.

Department spokesperson Mark Vernarelli said the state is taking steps, such as providing and mandating personal protective equipment at all facilities, to contain the spread.

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“Some areas of the state are seeing an increase in cases, and since COVID is transmitted in communities everywhere, the department continues to implore its employees to take precautions and follow all health guidelines in and outside of their workplaces,” he said.

Last week, the number of inmate cases at Eastern Correctional Institution jumped by 60, according to corrections department statistics, for a total prisoner tally of 620. Cumulatively, more than a fifth of inmates there have tested positive. Eastern Correctional Institution is Maryland’s largest prison with more than 2,900 inmate, according to Vernarelli.

In addition, a total of 127 correctional staff there have tested positive for the virus, second only to the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, according to state health department data.

Eastern Correctional Institution has the most cases of any prison in the state, officials said. And it accounts for more than half of the COVID-19 cases in Somerset County, according to Mike Ricci, communications director for Gov. Larry Hogan.

Tasha Owens said her fiance, Stanley Harrison, an inmate at Eastern Correctional Institution, was not infected with the virus. Still, she said, he was transferred to a tier where much of the prison population had confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“The tier he [had been] on was the only place they had where inmates were not testing positive. Just because these guys are in prison doesn’t mean they should put themselves in harm’s way by getting COVID-19,” Owens said. “I am not just looking out for my fiance, I am looking out for all inmates.”

Harrison was sentenced to 12 years in 2013 after pleading guilty to armed robbery and assault charges, according to Maryland Court records.

Owens, 45, said she and other mothers or partners of inmates have started a petition and reached out to Hogan’s office to make him aware of what they say are dangerous conditions inside the facility.

Ashley Congo said her fiance, Lorenzo Blythe, 33, is housed at the facility and is particularly vulnerable to the illness because he has underlying health conditions and must take medicine twice a day.

“Without that [medicine], he will not be able to eat,” Congo said.

Blythe confirmed the health condition to The Baltimore Sun

Vernarelli says the correctional department has done “everything possible” to slow the spread of coronavirus.

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“The department is constantly testing, utilizing quarantine and isolation housing, and remaining nimble in modifying inmate movement to prevent and mitigate potential spread,” he said.

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