CommunityWilliam J. Ford

Advocates Demand Releases, Improved Treatment for Inmates During Pandemic

Martina Hazelton of Southeast has been married to her husband of five years, but must currently maintain a long-distance relationship with him incarcerated at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland.

Hazelton declined to give her husband’s name, but said he’s been incarcerated for 27 years. A modification hearing regarding a possible new sentence and parole eligibility was postponed from Friday, April 17, which was also her daughter’s 27th birthday.

While her husband awaits a new court date, Hazelton wants to make sure he and other inmates are subjected to clean and sanitary conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol when soap and water is not “readily available,” the substance remains illegal in jails and prisons because of its alcohol content.

“[Inmates] have access to sinks in their cells, but not when they are walking around in common areas,” said Hazelton, who runs Lifer Family Support Network. “I think it is a human rights situation. You don’t have to know of anyone there. They’re people.”

Hazelton and other advocates are calling for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to mandate jail and prison officials to provide better treatment to incarcerated individuals and returning citizens in a state where the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases hovers near 10,000.

Along with her group, the ACLU of Maryland, retired law enforcement personnel and criminal justice reform activists sent a letter to the governor’s office with a list of demands, including:

• limiting arrests and pretrial detention to decrease jail and prison populations, except when doing so poses an imminent risk to public safety.
• releasing those who are currently or recently have been pregnant, persons 60 and older and those with medical conditions per CDC guidelines.
• coordinating with the courts to release youth housed at juvenile facilities.
• suspending the prohibition of hand sanitizers in jails and prisons, and providing better hygiene products and unlimited cleaning supplies for all inmates and staff.

Health officials have stressed social distancing — including the recommendation that persons stand at least six feet apart from each other — will help combat the outbreak. But jails and prisons are inherently designed to house inmates in tight quarters.

“An outbreak in a facility affects all of us, no matter where people are,” said Sonia Kumar, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland.

On Saturday, an inmate in his 60s at the Jessup Correctional Institution became the first incarcerated person to die in Maryland due to the coronavirus. The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said in a statement that the inmate had underlying conditions.

As of Monday, the department reported 93 confirmed coronavirus cases within the state prison system, including 13 officers, 10 inmates and 10 contractual employees at the Jessup facility.

D.C. Jail officials also announced Monday its first inmate death from the virus. Deon M. Crowell, 51, who was awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge, died Monday morning, six days after he was diagnosed with the COVID-19 disease. Defense attorneys have urged the release of hundreds of inmates because the virus could spread inside the jail.

Medical professionals and instructors at Howard, Georgetown and George Washington universities released a letter Tuesday to the mayor, judges and other city officials with recommendations for limiting the spread of COVID-19, including releasing all inmates with misdemeanor offenses, arranging for testing of incarcerated individuals and correctional facility workers who exhibit common or atypical symptoms, and waiving fees or co-pays for related medical care or testing.

“As public health experts, we believe these steps are essential to support the health of incarcerated individuals, who are some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” the letter stated. “The vital personnel who work in prisons and jail and all people in the District of Columbia. Our compassion for and treatment of these populations impact us all.”

Advocates nationwide have demanded state and correctional officials to release nonviolent inmates as hundreds of correctional officers and inmates continue to contract the coronavirus.

Governors in New Jersey and Pennsylvania issued executive orders Friday, April 10 to grant the temporary release of nonviolent offenders, those scheduled for release within months and elderly inmates.

Also on Friday, the Washington Supreme Court ordered Gov. Jay Inslee and Steven Sinclair, director of the state’s Department of Corrections, to present a report no later than noon Monday, April 13 and an update report Thursday.

“We recently took considerable action, including suspending civil and criminal trials across our state, because our court facilities are ill-equipped to effectively comply with social distancing and other public health requirements,” Judge Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote. “It’s difficult to believe that our prisons and jails are any better equipped to ensure public health. Indeed, we now know that COVID-19 has found its way inside our prisons.”

Locally, fewer than 600 inmates remain at the Prince George’s County jail after the court agreed to release about 136 inmates.

Mary Lou McDonough, director of the county jail, said at a press conference Thursday, April 9 that correctional officers received masks the week prior. Then the jail issued masks to inmates April 6.

Both officers and inmates received “sanitation materials,” but no hand sanitizer, at least for those incarcerated, she said.

“An inmate is never more than six feet away from a sink. There’s a sink in every cell,” McDonough said. “We are providing them with soap every day.”

Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Action Partnership and a former state trooper, said that at a “critical level,” at least 60 percent of those incarcerated in the state’s jails and prisons could be affected by COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“If we don’t do something soon, that’s what we’re going to be looking at,” he said. “I’m very familiar with the unsanitary conditions in our institutions as well as close contact and the lack of cleaning supplies. The lack of soap … and other things that are definitely during such a time in dealing with a very contagious virus.”

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William J. Ford – Washington Informer Staff Writer

I decided I wanted to become a better writer while attending Bowie State University and figured that writing for the school newspaper would help. I’m not sure how much it helped, but I enjoyed it so much I decided to keep on doing it, which I still thoroughly enjoy 20 years later. If I weren’t a journalist, I would coach youth basketball. Actually, I still play basketball, or at least try to play, once a week. My kryptonite is peanut butter. What makes me happy – seeing my son and two godchildren grow up. On the other hand, a bad call made by an official during a football or basketball game makes me throw up my hands and scream. Favorite foods include pancakes and scrambled eggs which I could eat 24-7. The strangest thing that’s ever happened to me, or more accurately the most painful, was when I was hit by a car on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia. If I had the power or money to change the world, I’d make sure everyone had three meals a day. And while I don’t have a motto or favorite quote, I continue to laugh which keeps me from driving myself crazy. You can reach me several ways: Twitter @jabariwill, Instagram will_iam.ford2281 or e-mail, wford@washingtoninformer.com

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