Life inside Maryland’s prison system has never been easy, plagued by isolation, violence, cramped quarters and rampant corruption, as shown by the arrests of nearly 200 guards and inmates in recent years.
But amid the coronavirus pandemic, life has become unbearable, attorneys, inmates and their families say. Lockdowns are nearly constant, prison officials acknowledge, and telephone time is cut short. Prisoners say they are stuck in cells that are rarely cleaned.
“I’m going through mental breakdowns in here. This population needs help,” said Anthony Scott, 33, a Jessup inmate convicted of murder in 2008.
Yet amid these conditions, Maryland prisons have seen fewer COVID-related deaths than many other states have, according to corrections department officials and a review of prisoner deaths nationwide.
So far, six people have died in Maryland prisons. They include four men in their 60s: two at the Jessup Correctional Institute, one in the Patuxent Institution in Jessup and another at the Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown. The others were a man in his 50s at the Dorsey Run Correctional Facility in Jessup and a man in his 40s at the Central Maryland Correctional Facility in Sykesville.
The overall number of deaths in Maryland prisons is far lower than in many states around the country, according to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit that examines America’s criminal justice system.
For example, Michigan has a prison population about four times the size of Maryland’s, but its total of 55 inmate deaths is nine times the number who died in Maryland’s prison system, according to The Marshall Project. Ohio has recorded 51 inmate deaths, even though the state overall has 13,000 fewer confirmed cases than in Maryland.
Maryland is averaging about 30 deaths per 100,000 inmates, which is on the lowest end of states that are reporting data and have had significant coronavirus outbreaks, per Marshall Project analysis.
Yet few Maryland prisoners have been tested for the disease or even been supplied proper protective equipment, inmates and advocates say. Maryland officials announced just this week a plan to test all prisoners and staff.
The information state officials have released so far doesn’t tell the whole story and may be misleading about the true impact of the virus on prisoners, said Tom Meagher, managing editor for the Marshall Project.
Besides not disclosing names and details of the inmates killed by the virus, Meagher notes, Maryland does not release how many inmates are being tested. Many other states have been more forthcoming, he said.
“A big thing in Maryland we don’t know is how many people they are testing,” Meagher said. The state is one of 14 not regularly reporting rates of testing at prisons.
On Wednesday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said the state would undertake universal testing at state prisons and juvenile centers after calls from prisoner advocates and employee unions. But the announcement was short on details, and a prison spokesman said Thursday that officials don’t have a final plan in place.
“We’ll see if this is true or just another press stunt,” said Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3, a union representing more than 6,000 correctional officers, maintenance staff and administrative workers in the state prison system. The union for weeks has called for universal testing and accused the state of not being transparent about its prevention efforts.
Others, including the American Civil Liberties Union and health care experts, have criticized the state, not only for its lack of testing but also for its lockdown practices. In normal conditions inmates are free for most of the day to share common space, watch TV, roam the yard at designated periods and perform prison work.
Prisons spokesman Mark Vernarelli said every action taken since the outbreak is to protect the health of inmates and staff, meaning “normal operations, schedules and procedures" may be temporarily interrupted.
“Again, this is for the safety of our incarcerated men and women,” Vernarelli said in a statement. That means lockdowns “absolutely occur” in facilities and may happen at any moment.
But prison experts, defense attorneys and inmates themselves argue that the lockdowns and other measures are draconian and intended to cover up for the prison system’s own failures.
Carolyn Sufrin is an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a physician who has studied correctional health care, research and policy for over a decade. She says lockdowns should not be the “default” action, adding that the psychological impact of lockdowns can be severe, with the stress of the pandemic adding more pressure.
“If this is sort of the default response, we are not thinking of the big picture enough. Lockdowns are not necessarily proven to be a COVID-19 prevention strategy,” Sufrin said. “[Prisoners] don’t have control of their environment, and a lockdown is a reminder of that.”
Prisoner advocates say Maryland is taking the easy way out at the expense of prisoners. Inmates are confronted daily, they say, with the brutal choice of either calling family or taking a shower. They are given only 15 minutes to do whichever they choose, Scott and other inmates said.
“Sometimes they have to juggle between whether they want to go wash the mask, sanitize themselves or go talk to someone over the phone,” said Todd Oppenheim, an attorney in the felony trial division of the Baltimore City Public Defender’s Office.
The isolation and lack of answers are taking a toll not only on the prisoners, but also on their loved ones.
Gretchen Stanley says her time to talk with her son, Brandon Stanley, 33, has been slashed, and that her son and other inmates feel helpless. He shares a small cell in Jessup with a roommate, and tells her he lacks basic materials to clean their own cell.
“It stresses me out so bad when he tells me about it. Every time he calls he is upset,” Gretchen Stanley said. Brandon Stanley, 33, has been in prison since 2007 for robbery and assault.
Jason Allen, 36, another inmate at Jessup, described similar conditions and discussed the impact they are having on his psyche.
“We don’t have any options; it is scary sometimes. Their priorities right now are not us and it is apparent,” said Allen, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 2010. “It makes you feel like you are not a person. I know I am convicted, but just the humanity aspect. I could die in here."
Amid limited testing, the corrections department has reported around 100 cases of COVID-19 among inmates, and 220 confirmed cases among officers.
The lockdowns and lack of testing have fueled lawsuits and rallies from civil rights groups, including the ACLU.
Sonia Kumar, a senior staff attorney with the Maryland ACLU, says the state’s crowded prisons are ripe for the spread of the virus, and that the state has been slow to react despite early warnings from public health experts.
“Because there are so many people in the facilities, the department has been relying heavily on locking people in their cells with very little movement,” Kumar said. “The answer can’t be that we are having prolonged lockdowns for many weeks.”