All detainees at the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore will be offered coronavirus vaccines by May 1 and the facility will undergo monthly independent inspections, ending a federal lawsuit and providing a level of protection from COVID-19 sought by inmates and their supporters.
The settlement between detainees and the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services requires officials at the facility to take steps in line with state and federal guidelines, and with what much of those outside the prison walls have been allowed.
It calls for officials to enforce social distancing and mask-wearing requirements, take measures to properly sanitize common areas and maintain quarantine and isolation units for residents who test positive, along with their close contacts.
The settlement was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, and will be binding until 180 days after the state’s COVID-19 emergency ends.
In February, inmates filed a lawsuit alleging that corrections officials fueled an outbreak that led to more than 150 inmates and 80 employees contracting the virus at the state-run lockup for men and women awaiting federal trial.
“This settlement is a huge victory that is going to save lives,” said John Fowler, counsel with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which filed the suit with the Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner law firm. “As a society, we have known the steps necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19 for over a year now. Finally, the Chesapeake Detention Facility is going to enact them.”
Plaintiffs argued that officials at the site were not properly separating COVID-19 detainees from other residents and that corrections officers were not enforcing social distancing requirements or cleaning common areas to prevent the virus from spreading. The suit named Warden Calvin Wilson and Robert Green, Maryland secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services, as defendants
The outbreak reached the point in February that U.S. marshals and state correctional offices stopped taking in new prisoners.
The lawsuit also alleged that COVID-19 positive patients who were moved to the Jail Industries Building on East Madison were subjected to cold temperatures from broken or drafty windows and housed in a dormitory-style layout with beds separated by about two feet. The building was closed in 2017, but officials have used it to house detainees who test positive for the coronavirus during the pandemic.
In a statement, the department said the settlement agreement “reinforces the Department’s long-standing commitment to protecting its employees and the incarcerated men and women.”
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“Since day one of the pandemic, the Department has been committed to the health and safety of its detainees, inmates, and employees,” spokesman Mark Vernarelli wrote. “[The department] continues to follow all guidance and guidelines from the CDC and state health officials to mitigate the spread of COVID.”
In addition to addressing what the lawsuit alleged were unacceptable conditions, some of the provisions of the settlement look to address the conditions at the Jail Industries Building. Several inmates reached out to The Baltimore Sun through family members to say they’d been provided T-shirts and boxer shorts to wear in a facility that the lawsuit alleged suffered temperatures as low as 55 degrees.
The settlement requires the department to maintain quarantine facilities so that temperatures are at or above 65 degrees as well as provide detainees with “clean and sanitized fabric clothing” and hot water. Corrections officials will also be required to provide hand sanitizer in the common areas of the facility and at least two reusable or washable masks to each detainee if they do not already have their own upon admission.
With the settlement allowing plaintiffs to designate an outside expert to inspect the facility monthly to ensure that officials are in compliance with the agreed-upon terms, lawyers for the detainees called the agreement “a huge victory.”
“We hope that CDF (Chesapeake Detention Facility) will learn from this experience and ensure the health and safety of its residents by providing humane and sanitary living conditions, not only during a pandemic and not only when a federal lawsuit is filed against state officials, but at all times,” Fowler said.
He added that provisions of the settlement that require corrections officials to identify medically vulnerable detainees upon admission and prioritize them for single-occupancy cells are “really important” and “a big step forward.”
“The people who are most vulnerable to COVID have to be treated differently,” Fowler said.