Prince George's County Department of Corrections in Upper Marlboro (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)
Prince George's County Department of Corrections in Upper Marlboro (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)

A U.S. District Court judge excoriated the Prince George’s County Department of Corrections over its “reckless disregard” for the health of inmates during the coronavirus pandemic.

Judge Paula Xinis noted in court documents filed Thursday that the decision for the jail to improve conditions doesn’t just rest on a limited number of COVID-19 tests administered and maintained at the facility.

“Rather the combination of simultaneously undertesting, failing to isolate and provide basic medical attention to COVID-19 symptomatic detainees, and ignoring high-risk detainees — all known to Defendant — that is at the core of this finding,” Xinis wrote.

Department of Corrections spokesperson Andrew Cephas said the county will appeal the judge’s order and findings.

“The appeal will request a stay of the order, but will comply with the court’s order until a stay is granted, if one is granted,” he said in an email Friday. “The injunction didn’t require the Prince George’s Department of Corrections to do anything that wasn’t already being done or in the process of starting. The court’s appointed expert inspector found that the jail was in CDC compliance.”

The majority-Black jurisdiction continues to record the highest number of confirmed cases in Maryland.

The judge’s ruling comes after a lawsuit filed last month by D.C.-based nonprofit Civil Rights Corps claimed the jail in Upper Marlboro failed to adopt measures to protect inmates from the virus.

Within the suit, the organization claims the jail lacks hygiene products and that those treated for the virus are sent back to general housing units instead of medical isolation.

According to court documents, the jail’s director, Mary Lou McDonough, knew about the “substantial outbreak in the facility, but didn’t provide adequate measures in place to combat the virus.”

For instance, logs of temperature checks showed records “were spotty and did not reflect the purported twice daily checks.”

In some cases, detainees had temperatures that ranged from 96 degrees to as low as 90 degrees, “indicative of hypothermia.” No temperature recorded rose above 99 degrees, although the jail reported that 18 inmates contracted the virus.

The jail implemented protocols to monitor inmates, but they were ineffective because sick calls were ignored and nurses “telling symptomatic detainees if you can walk, then you are OK. [The jail] exhibited a reckless disregard for provision of basic care,” according to court documents.

The documents state that as of April 24, the jail maintained only 20 additional testing kits with no plan on how to secure or administer the tests and couldn’t “point to even one request for additional tests” from the federal or state governments or private vendors.

The judge acknowledged jail officials worked with state prosecutors, public defenders and the court system to reduce the jail population.

Between March 1 and April 24, the number of inmates at the facility decreased from 720 to 534. As of Thursday, about 544 inmates are housed at the jail. The jail expedited their releases in accordance with the state court order, according to the documents.

The court appointed Carlos Franco-Paredes, program director at the University of Colorado’s Division of Infectious Diseases, to inspect the jail on May 6 and 7.

According to documents, Franco-Paredes found that the jail followed most of the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He also found that inmates received adequate supplies of soap and disinfectant spray, staff worked to contain the virus when detainees became positive with the virus and the jail continues to make changes on provision on masks.

However, Franco-Paredes said high-risk inmates are still exposed to the virus and that staffers failed to treat or isolate symptomatic detainees and remain “ill-equipped to handle the outbreak.”

Judge Xinis issued injunctive relief, or a court order, for jail officials to submit comprehensive plans within five to 28 days to treat “high-risk” detainees such as those 65 and older or health conditions, training of staff, number of coronavirus tests administered, soap provided to inmates and adequate cleaning supplies for housing units.

The judge ordered a telephone conference call to take place on June 22 between the two parties on whether to extend or modify the order.

Katie Chamblee-Ryan, senior attorney for Civil Rights Corps, said the judge’s ruling shows county jail officials must improve conditions and those incarcerated are in serious harm.

Chamblee-Ryan said some of the current inmates are either homeless or charged with misdemeanor offenses.

“What I hope everyone involved in the [criminal justice] system takes a hard look at that and really thinks about whether each person in that jail needs to be there,” she said. “It’s just especially stark when the consequences of trapping someone in an environment … where jails are more high risk than anywhere else because it’s a congregant environment.”

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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