Concerns with COVID-19 spreading in prisons, jails

Calling for releases, hygiene supplies
Posted at 5:37 PM, Apr 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-08 17:47:55-04

BALTIMORE — "COVID-19 is a death sentence for those inside."

Martina Hazelton is worried about her husband, who is incarcerated in Cumberland.

"He suffers from hypertension so he’s a vulnerable part of this population," said Hazelton.

They see what's happening with the spread of COVID-19, the outbreaks in jails and prisons like Rikers Island in New York City. They hear the CDC recommendations for hygiene and social distancing but say they can't follow them.

"Everybody in there is scared. They are all scared. They feel like they are sitting ducks," said Hazelton. "Imagine yourself walking into a walk-in closet in an average size home. That’s the size of a cell and that’s being shared with two people."

"Many prisons and jails have a co-pay for soap and soap is a limited commodity. Of course many ban the use of hand sanitizer because it contains alcohol and can be a substance of abuse," said Dr. Chris Beyrer, Professor of Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

So today, a coalition of public health experts and criminal justice reform advocates came together for a virtual press conference asking Gov. Larry Hogan to do five things to contain and prevent the spread in the state's prisons and jails.

One main goal is to reduce the amount of people behind bars to allow for social distancing by stopping new admissions and releasing those who can be safely released into their communities, prioritizing children and the most medically vulnerable adults.

"There is a child who is 36 weeks pregnant. There are multiple children with severe asthma who have to see a pulmonologist," said Jenny Egan with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.

"There are many people in our places of correction who can be safely released without any risk to public safety," said Sonia Kumar with the ACLU of Maryland.

They are also asking for improved safety conditions for those who remain incarcerated, which includes health screenings and sufficient hygiene supplies.

Julie Magers, with the Maryland Prisoners’ Rights Coalition, said she's heard complaints about current medical treatment

"There is a ton of notably sick individuals that the medical department is not addressing the fact that they have a fever, that they are expressing symptoms, and these are people that are intermixed with people that are not expressing symptoms and they’re not reporting it. They’re also not being allowed their chronic care visits so all the regular medical situations are not being addressed," said Magers.

Advocates said these changes are not only for the inmates' safety, but for everyone.

"The risk is to all of us. Pandemics and outbreaks inside of prisons don’t stay in prisons. We have staff members, case managers and correctional officers who work on the units," said Egan.

The Governor's Office tweeted out that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has already temporarily suspended intakes and is using discretionary release mechanisms. The Department of Juvenile Services has taken similar actions.

A DJS staff member at Lower Eastern Shore Children’s Center (LESCC) in Salisbury, tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend. All staff and youth who were in contact with this worker are currently in quarantine. In addition, all facility staff and youth have been directed to wear protective masks.

DJS has taken precautionary steps at LESCC and across the state to contain the virus including:

 Strict infection control measures (including wear masks when out of his/her room)
 Enhanced hygiene and sanitation practices
 Limiting facility entry to only essential personnel and requiring all persons entering DJS facilities to
complete a medical screening and temperature check
 Each youth newly admitted to DJS custody undergoes a thorough medical evaluation as part of the
intake process. Newly admitted youth are housed separately until they have been monitored for
COVID-19 related symptoms and cleared
 Modified movement and meal service that aligns with social distancing protocols
 Increased visitation through video and phone calls
 While DJS has maintained education services to date, DJS and MSDE are engaged in planning to
transition to a distance learning model
 On-site and on-call medical staff available at all facilities
 In-person and remote mental health services available at all facilities