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Demonstrators demand more resources and more urgency to protect Maryland prisoners from coronavirus

A gathering that started in downtown Baltimore ended on Joppa Road in Towson on Thursday afternoon as activists came together to demand more equipment and better sanitation inside Maryland’s prisons to protect inmates from the coronavirus pandemic.

A small group first gathered at 2011 N. Charles St. in downtown Baltimore to stage a car caravan. About an hour later demonstrators arrived and set up in Baltimore County, holding signs and shouting through megaphones at passing cars; many drivers honked in support.

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The march is one of several protests held to call attention to systemic racism, police brutality or issues inside the state’s prisons, organizers said. Protesters held signs reading “Black Lives Matter,” “COVID Jail equals Death” and “Human Rights for all Prisoners.”

The Rev. Annie Chambers, 79, and other demonstrators called on Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Robert Green to do more for inmates.

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Chambers said she has family members, including five grandsons, who are inside the Cumberland Federal Correctional Institution and “catching hell and struggling” due to the outbreak inside the facility. Chambers says her family members need basics such as soap, washcloths and more accessible face masks but they are not able to obtain them.

“They are not doing anything to give them relief,” Chambers, one of the founders of the People’s Power Assembly, shouted through a megaphone.

Demonstrators said they are looking for transparency from the Maryland Department of Correctional Services and Public Safety.

Andre Powell of PPA said the group has heard many concerns from inmates, including reports that they receive small amounts of soap that last only for one shower. He said the conditions endured by prisoners during the pandemic are an injustice that must be corrected.

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The prisoners did not bring the virus to the facility, Powell said, and now they are not able to get out. The department needs to screen correctional officers and other staff members when they enter or leave the buildings, Powell said, adding that inmates who are more vulnerable to catching and dying from the virus need to be released.

“We are trying to respond and assist them by bringing to light the mistreatment and mishandling by the department of public safety and corrections when it comes to those prisoners who become COVID-positive,” Powell said.

“If there are prisoners in their 60s, 70s or 80s that have been the most vulnerable to passing away, they need to let them out. They have been in prison long enough,” he added.

The department has recently completed a round of universal testing for the entire inmate population, spokesperson Mark Vernarelli said Thursday.

Vernarelli says the department is working to prevent further spread and is following the guidance and recommendations of Maryland’s Department of Health for testing.

“The health and safety of the department’s employees and the incarcerated men and women continues to be the Department’s top priority,” Vernarelli said in a statement Thursday.

Faith Bender, 21, said she has attended “all” the protests organized by the group and said that even before COVID-19 hit the facilities, inmates were being treated unfairly.

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And now, the virus has created a domino effect, Bender says.

Bender said the prison population needs to decrease and lockdowns of inmates need to end. But she added that she is not sure government and elected officials will take those steps as the virus and its impact drag on.

“Since COVID has hit, it has only gotten worse,” Bender said. “All they have shown is that they don’t care about their needs.”

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