Maryland prison officials confirmed its first cases of the new coronavirus, saying one inmate and two non-correctional contract employees at two different facilities have tested positive for COVID-19.
The three victims are associated with correctional facilities in Baltimore and Jessup, officials said. They did not immediately specify which facilities were affected.
“The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has COVID-19 Response Teams working to determine whether any other staff or inmates may have had contact with the three individuals who tested positive,” the system said in a statement.
The statement said the department has been deep-cleaning its facilities — including the ones affected — for days and has identified locations and spaces within its facilities for isolation and quarantine.
The development follows calls from Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, defense attorneys, medical professionals and others for Gov. Larry Hogan to release certain older, immuno-compromised and parole-eligible prisoners. More than 200 Johns Hopkins University public health faculty and staff penned a letter last week.
Mosby’s office reiterated the push for Hogan to establish a plan for reducing prison populations and preventing spread of the virus. In a statement, the office says there needs to be a comprehensive plan on handling prisons and COVID-19.
“Today’s news confirming the first coronavirus cases in Maryland prisons underscores that now, more than ever, the Governor must immediately formulate and implement a comprehensive plan for safely handling prisons and COVID-19," a statement reads from Zy Richardson, spokesperson with the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office.
"I, along with public health officials, public defenders, and criminal justice experts have provided detailed proposals to Governor Hogan and still stand ready to assist him in any way to prevent the spread. The clock is ticking and we must act now to protect the public’s health.”
Hogan said two weeks ago that prisoners were “safer where they are." His office said more recently that they were reviewing the Hopkins letter but said the prison system was taking steps to ensure prisoner safety.
Leonard Rubenstein, a program director for the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the confirmation of cases is evidence that the governor needs to take swift action in reducing statewide prisoner populations.
If the population stays at the same level, Rubenstein says, the virus will spread at a rapid pace.
“These cases underline the urgency for the governor to take action very, very quickly. If people don’t get out, it will spread very quickly and make it difficult to create the space to protect inmates and staff from infection,” Rubenstein said.
“We can unfortunately expect rapid spread if the population is not reduced.”
Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said there needs to be a push across the country for more elderly people with health issues and offenders who are no longer a threat to society to be released.
“We are worried about all the people behind bars, especially those 50 or older and those who may have health problems," Eisen said. "We are worried about the deaths that we may start to see behind bars, we know how quickly they spread.
"We are urging more released for people across the country.”
Earlier Monday, a prison system spokesman said there had been no positive cases within the system, but could not answer whether tests were being administered. It remains unclear how inmates are being tested and screened.
Corrections department spokesman Mark Vernarelli said that the system had “canceled visits, modified inmate movements and implemented grab-and-go meals where possible.”
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“We’re stressing health information and personal hygiene for both employees and inmates and detainees,” Vernarelli continued. “Temperature checks and health questionnaires are being administered to staff at every shift change.”
Vernarelli also said that there were “enhanced cleaning procedures” and inmates were being given “extra soap at no cost.”
In addition to the cases in the state prison system, an outbreak has been reported at the maximum security Clifton T. Perkins psychiatric hospital, which provides treatment to offenders deemed not criminally responsible or incompetent to stand trial. That facility is run by the Maryland Department of Health, which has not provided any information about the situation.
Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Council 3, which represents some of the employees inside the facility, told The Sun said that the outbreak at Perkins was indicative of a larger issue with how the state is handling some essential employees.
“We have been warning the administration about this happening for weeks,” Moran said.
This article will be updated.
Baltimore Sun reporter Phil Davis contributed to this article.