An outbreak of coronavirus at the federal jail in Baltimore has alarmed public defenders and caused authorities to announce they are locking down the compound.
State officials report more than 100 inmates have contracted the virus at the Chesapeake Detention Facility, the state-run lockup for men and women awaiting federal trial.
James Wyda, the federal public defender for Maryland, said 132 inmates there tested positive in the past month — or one in three of the roughly 400 inmates there.
“The virus is spreading like a wildfire through the facility,” he said.
Cases among prisoners statewide also are climbing, but at a far smaller rate than at the federal facility in Baltimore. Some 500 of the 18,000 inmates in Maryland tested positive since the start of January. And since the pandemic started last year, about 3,900 inmates contracted the virus in Maryland’s 20 jails and prisons.
In addition, about 40% of correctional officers statewide tested positive, a spokesman for the officers’ union said.
Cpl. Greg Lacroix said his commanders at the Chesapeake Detention Facility waited until after he finished working a double shift before telling him he had been exposed. He contracted the virus and spent two weeks in quarantine before returning to work.
“It’s anxiety, all the officers will tell you,” he said Tuesday, speaking as a member of the officers’ union. “You’re putting two or three masks on. We have to buy our own wipes.”
Lacroix, who has worked 13 years at the facility, said officials waited too long to try and stem the outbreak.
“It was mass movement until today,” he said. “People were just walking around regularly.”
The spike in cases has caused U.S. marshals and state correctional officers to stop taking in new prisoners, said Lt. Latoya Gray, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
“Isolation and quarantine practices are in place,” Gray said. “The Department, as a routine practice, continues to conduct testing of all inmates upon admission, weekly testing of health care professionals and monthly testing of staff.”
The virus has run rampant through U.S. prisons and jails. In Maryland, at least four correctional officers and 21 inmates died of the virus, according to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
Wyda, the federal public defender, said the lockdown at the Chesapeake Detention Facility hinders efforts by defense attorneys and families to speak to the men and women behind bars.
“The justice system depends on a balance. Right now, the system is broken. The defense function is struggling. We cannot visit and communicate with our detained clients,” Wyda said. “We can’t conduct our own investigations safely in the community. Our court is closed. And we simply have no safe places to house detained clients.”
The outbreak comes as Maryland’s two federal courts plan to reconvene the grand juries necessary to hand up indictments on felony charges. Usually 16 to 23 people, grand juries generally meet weekly over a period of months.
Chief U.S. District Judge for Maryland James Bredar said the grand juries will reconvene in the middle of February at the state’s federal courthouses in Baltimore and Greenbelt.
The grand juries had been suspended last year amid the outbreak. Federal authorities resumed convening grand juries in November, but suspended the proceedings again last month.
The federal courts of Maryland allocated 50 of their first 150 vaccines for the grand jurors, Bredar said. Some men and women already have been vaccinated as they prepare to return to court. The courts are tracking the outbreak.
“Obviously, we’re very aware and monitoring the situation very closely,” Bredar said. “The court is doing its best to remain operational. We’re not functioning at the normal level, but we are more than skeletal.”
Meanwhile, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services touted its work to vaccinate its workforce, announcing Tuesday that 3,240 of its 8,000 employees received their first of two shots. The department also has begun vaccinating inmates older than 75.
Lockdowns had been instituted in other facilities during the early months of the pandemic, including at the Jessup Correctional Institution, in response to a spike in cases