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Maryland to test all detainees, staff at prisons and juvenile facilities for coronavirus

Maryland will conduct universal testing for the coronavirus at state-run correctional facilities and juvenile centers, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday.
Maryland will conduct universal testing for the coronavirus at state-run correctional facilities and juvenile centers, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Following calls from prisoner advocates and employee unions, Maryland will undertake universal testing at state prisons and juvenile centers, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday.

Six state prison inmates have died from the coronavirus so far, and hundreds of inmates and employees have tested positive for the virus. Juvenile facilities have also experienced outbreaks, including the Silver Oak Academy in Carroll County, where dozens of children and staff tested positive.

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A union representing correctional officers has repeatedly pressed for more protective equipment and testing in the facilities. Advocates for prisoners and detainees have pushed for a better response and increased testing, as well.

The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman Mark Vernarelli said the agency is working with the state’s department of health on the next steps in rolling out universal testing in prisons.

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The department has not disclosed how many inmates are being tested for COVID-19 or how many inmates have been placed on quarantine.

“Concerned staff,” even if asymptomatic, Vernarelli said, will be able to get testing for the virus through their healthcare providers and the newly expanded testing. 

“We’ll see if this is true or just another press stunt,” said Patrick Moran, president AFSCME Maryland Council 3, a union representing more than 6,000 correctional officers, maintenance staff and administrative workers in the state prison system.

Hours before Hogan’s announcement, Moran and his team were told that only selected staff would be tested. Employees who have been tested so far obtained the tests on their own, without help from the state, he said.

“There are thousands of people who need this to be true and factual in order to stay healthy and keep their families healthy and the people they oversee healthy,” Moran said.

Sonia Kumar, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said she often hears from families and clients, asking if the state is doing enough to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Although encouraged by Hogan’s decision, Kumar said there needs to be more transparency regarding testing.

“We need more than press announcements. We need specifics about the plan and transparency about how tests are being allocated, the number of tests conducted and the results,” Kumar said.

Testing is “one small piece” that needs to be coupled with an aggressive plan to protect inmates from further spread of the virus, Kumar said.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, says more testing is needed, but that is not where efforts should stop. Fathi said to prevent further spread, populations in facilities will have to decrease.

“Universal testing is obviously a very positive step and an essential step, but by itself, is not enough to reduce the risk of transmission in prisons and jails,” Fathi said.

Through late April, the state had released about 2,000 inmates in hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

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The state has nearly 21,000 people in custody across 23 adult prisons and correctional centers. Maryland’s prison population has decreased in recent years, due in part to sentencing reforms that were part of the Justice Reinvestment Act of 2016. A report last year ranked Maryland 38th among states for the rate of incarceration.

Paul DeWolfe, Maryland’s top public defender, said in a statement that he hopes local jails will follow suit and test their populations, as well.

Prisons, jails and juvenile facilities “post exceptionally high risks of COVID-19 transmission and our clients housed in these facilities disproportionately meet the heightened vulnerability criteria identified by the CDC and other public health entities,” DeWolfe said.

Maryland previously expanded testing in settings where people live close together after receiving pressure to do so.

In late April, the state announced a plan of universal testing in elder care facilities such as nursing homes, following dozens of outbreaks and hundreds of deaths. Through Wednesday, there had been more than 1,100 deaths among residents and workers at elder care facilities.

Some have complained the testing has been carried out too slowly, but Hogan said that tests would be distributed to all 227 elder care facilities in the state by the end of next week. The state is sending 3,000 tests per day to elder care facilities.

The state is not conducting universal testing at its residential hospitals, despite calls for expanded testing.

It wasn’t immediately clear how much the universal testing at prisons and juvenile centers would cost or who would pay for it. It also wasn’t clear when testing would start and how long it would take to conduct the testing.

Moran, from the AFSCME union, said his members will be monitoring the state’s follow-through on the testing promise.

“The administration has a habit of saying it’s all fixed and hope people don’t follow up,” he said.

Prison medical care is provided by a private, for-profit company, Corizon Health, which has a $680 million, five-year contract with the state.

Corizon has asked for $3.2 million more per month from the state to help pay for its coronavirus response, such as increased staffing and buying protective equipment.

The emergency contract revision came up for approval before the state’s spending board on Wednesday, but was withdrawn after concerns were raised about whether taxpayers or the company should shoulder the increased costs.

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