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More must be done to protect prison inmates during pandemic | READER COMMENTARY

Maryland prison officials confirmed its first cases of coronavirus in March, saying two non-correctional contract employees and one inmate have tested positive for COVID-19. The three victims are associated with correctional facilities in Baltimore and Jessup.
Maryland prison officials confirmed its first cases of coronavirus in March, saying two non-correctional contract employees and one inmate have tested positive for COVID-19. The three victims are associated with correctional facilities in Baltimore and Jessup. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

As we sit at home waiting to regain a sense of normalcy in our state, we must not forget the 21,000 individuals in custody within Maryland correctional facilities. The issue of public health within our prisons is already a dire one: Incarcerated individuals face higher rates of many chronic and communicable diseases than the general population, and access to adequate health care behind bars is few and far between. Justice-involved persons face a number of compounded systemic challenges, close living quarters and overall lack of preventative services that threaten a perfect storm of COVID-19 to sweep through the prison system.

A May 20 article in The Baltimore Sun (“Maryland to test all detainees, staff at prisons and juvenile facilities for coronavirus”) quoted the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman Mark Vernarelli in saying that the agency was working to roll out universal testing in prisons. Gov. Larry Hogan’s decision for universal testing was announced over two weeks ago, but the department’s website displays that just 1,321 inmates have been tested as of June 1. Out of the 1,321 inmates tested, 14%, or 186 individuals, tested positive. Using state-level data compiled by the COVID Prison Project, this sets Maryland’s correctional facilities at an Inmate Case Rate of 9.95 per 1,000. These numbers should serve as a call for further action, rather than a reassurance that preventative effort has been made.

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Although we have taken the first step towards proper COVID-19 care for our Maryland incarcerated population, we must not let this momentum die down. In fact, we need to speed it up. Testing in our correctional facilities still remains entirely too low at a rate of 70.69 tested per 1,000 inmates (COVID Prison Project). Even then, testing is not enough.

Weak follow-through on medical care provision, inadequate protective gear for inmates and staff and a lack of transparency in data reporting could quickly inflict devastating health impacts for one of our most vulnerable populations. Proper coronavirus response in Maryland prisons is simply not a concern that we can afford to postpone any further. We, as Marylanders, have a moral obligation to care for our most vulnerable communities, so why is our state lagging when it matters most?

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Sydney Steel, Silver Spring

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