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Class-action suit alleges officials mishandled COVID-19 outbreak at state-run Baltimore jail for federal pretrial detainees

A federal lawsuit alleges that corrections officials have mishandled an outbreak of the coronavirus at the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore City, leading to one-third of its inmates and staff members contracting the virus in less than one month.

Filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of a number of inmates at the facility, the class-action lawsuit names Warden Calvin Wilson and Robert Green, Maryland secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services, as defendants, saying their “actions have fueled this outbreak, and they also have failed to take appropriate action in response.”

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According to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, 169 inmates at the facility as of Feb. 15 have contracted COVID-19, the state-run lockup for men and women awaiting federal trial. In addition, 80 employees have contracted the virus. The lawsuit says the facility has about 400 inmates and 220 employees.

The lawsuit says inmates do not have the means to properly clean their cells, facility officials do not clean common areas in between recreation sessions, and on-site staff do not actively force residents to wear masks or consistently wear them themselves.

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“CDF [Chesapeake Detention Facility] has exposed resident after resident to the virus,” the lawsuit reads. “CDF has intermixed different groups of residents — COVID-positive residents, residents who should be quarantined because of potential exposure, newly admitted residents, and COVID-negative residents — and thereby dramatically increased the risk of exposure across the facility.”

Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, declined to comment on the lawsuit’s allegations, writing in an email that officials continue “to follow the guidance of Maryland’s Dept. of Health for mitigating the spread of COVID in its correctional facilities.”

“The Department is constantly testing, utilizing quarantine and isolation housing, and remaining nimble in modifying inmate movement to prevent and mitigate potential spread,” Vernarelli wrote.

State and federal courts in Maryland will reopen to the public next month and resume some trials after U.S. Chief District Judge James J. Bredar ordered that some in-person jury trials may resume “on or after March 15,” with “appropriate safety precautions taken in all instances.”

John Fowler, counsel with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which filed the lawsuit with the Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner law firm, said facility officials didn’t properly plan to separate COVID-positive inmates from the rest of the population, creating “this nightmare situation [where] people are getting exposed left and right.”

According to the lawsuit, some inmates have been moved to the Jail Industries Building on East Madison Street, which was closed in 2017. The lawsuit describes the facility as one that has a number of broken or drafty windows, alleging that temperatures inside drop to 55 degrees.

The building has a dormitory-style layout, according to the lawsuit, with beds separated by about 2 feet.

“This facility, which is best described as a broken-down, pest-plagued warehouse, would be an inhumane detention space for healthy inmates,” the lawsuit alleges. “For individuals who have already tested positive for a potentially deadly virus, it is nothing short of horrifying.”

In addition, the lawsuit claims, officials have ignored inmates’ requests for medical attention and have not always promptly responded to residents who are exhibiting symptoms related to COVID-19.

Quantae Butler, a 43-year-old inmate at Chesapeake Detention Facility, said he was moved over to the Jail Industries Building after testing positive for COVID-19 about two weeks ago.

Butler, who spoke with The Baltimore Sun on Sunday, said officials have not been separating COVID-positive inmates from the general population, leading to the disease’s spread among inmates and staff.

Suffering from nerve damage after being shot in the chest two years ago, Butler said he has received little medical attention outside of receiving doses of Tylenol and pregabalin, a medication that treats nerve and muscle pain also known by its brand name, Lyrica.

“They don’t know what they’re doing over here,” Butler said. “They treat it like nothing is going on.”

He added that officials rarely do proper cleaning of cells after someone has tested positive for COVID-19. The lawsuit alleges that inmates “who have tested negative for COVID are forced into the cells formerly occupied by residents who have tested positive, without any cleaning of these cells.”

In addition, the lawsuit claims that there have been times when newly admitted inmates have been placed into cells next to others exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.

“A woman who was a new admission to CDF, for example, was placed in a unit with positive male residents who were symptomatic. Two symptomatic male residents were on each side of her cell,” the lawsuit continues. “When she objected to her being placed in the unit and questioned why it made sense for an apparently negative woman to be placed with positive, symptomatic men, CDF told her ‘not to worry.’”

The group is seeking a court order for an independent expert to inspect the facility and force officials to bring it into compliance with CDC guidelines. It asks for inmates to be given hand soap and paper towels and for staffers to clean and disinfect common areas several times a day, among other requests.

The group is also seeking for some inmates with underlying health conditions considered to be vulnerable to the coronavirus to either be released or transferred to another facility, Fowler said.

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