More than 200 Johns Hopkins University public health faculty and staff have asked Gov. Larry Hogan to take measures to protect Maryland’s prison, jail and juvenile detention population from the coronavirus, joining a growing chorus of professionals and advocates seeking action.
The Hopkins staff members signed a letter to Hogan on March 25 to express “urgent concern” about the spread of the virus in Maryland’s corrections system. The letter asks Hogan to require facility administrators to make sure plans for prevention and management of the virus are available to the public.
It also demands that intake screening protocols for new inmates be updated with COVID-19 specific questions and policies. The professionals also want to make sure institutions provide “sufficient” soap and hand sanitizer for incarcerated individuals free of charge.
“As public health experts, we believe these steps are essential to support the health of incarcerated individuals, who are some of the most vulnerable people in our society; the vital personnel who work in prisons and jail; and all people in the state of Maryland,” the letter reads.
Hogan’s office said they were reviewing the letter but added state officials have taken several steps to ensure prisoner safety, including temperature checks for people entering correctional facilities. State officials report no positive cases among the incarcerated.
The Hopkins letter addresses not only conditions in prisons and jails, but also seeks measures to keep people out of jail while awaiting trial. It said pretrial detention should be considered only if there are “genuine” safety concerns.
Additionally, people who are being held for non-payment of fees and fines, or don’t have enough money to make bail should be “prioritized” for release, the letter reads.
“Our compassion for and treatment of these populations impact us all.”
Leonard Rubenstein, Director of the Program on Human Rights, Health and Conflict for the Center for Public Health and Human Rights, says efforts to reduce jail and prison populations due to the virus outbreak are “starting to happen all around the country."
Without these efforts—the virus will spread “very rapidly and sicken many inmates and staff,” Rubenstein said. Basic precautions to keep people in society from spreading the virus among themselves are not as easy for a prison population, he said.
“The kind of social distancing is extremely difficult, in some cases impossible in prison. Hygiene is often poor in these facilities and soap is not adequate," Rubenstein said. “It is the closed, crowded environment and the problems in basic hygiene which are basic recipes for spreading the virus.”
The letter comes after Baltimore City State Attorney Marilyn Mosby sent a proposal to Gov. Larry Hogan backed by medical professionals and experts to release elderly and low-risk offenders from statewide prisons due them possibly being more vulnerable to obtaining the virus.
Maryland has not enacted some of the broader measures prisoner rights advocates have won in other states, experts said.
Michael Mendoza, the national director of Cut50, a national bipartisan effort that focuses on safely and smartly reducing the prison population, said actions by the Hopkins faculty are the “exact types of pushes” needed across the country.
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“The horrible thing about the prisons is that if you feel symptoms and you want to be checked, you have to put the request with a piece of paper and hope it gets to the appropriate person. Sometimes you could go weeks without getting a response,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza says it is also important to properly deal with people on probation or parole to keep from sending them back to prison.
The Maryland Department of Corrections says field offices remain open and are functioning with a “modified” operational structure.
Mark Vernarelli, director of communications for the Maryland Department of Corrections, said it has “implemented” teleworking opportunities for most parole and probation agents, supervisors and monitors. The department is also using social distancing protocols for office visits. Occupancy in probation offices is limited to 10 people “at all times,” Vernarelli said.
Home visits between officers and individuals on probation and parole have also been “curtailed," Vernarelli said.