Courtesy of JOTF
**FILE** Courtesy of JOTF

Almost 4,000 incarcerated individuals have been released from Maryland prisons since March 1 amid the coronavirus pandemic, and data from the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services shows the prison population has decreased by 20 percent since 2015.

But criminal justice advocates say there’s plenty of work that still needs to be done.

“Mass incarceration has always been a public health problem,” Erika Maye, deputy senior campaign director of criminal justice at Color of Change, said Thursday. “Our jails and prisons are overcrowded. They are poorly sanitized. We need better health care in our prison and jails as well.”

Maye helped organize the fourth annual “Black Mamas Bail Out” campaign in 27 cities nationwide, which helps incarcerated women to be released for Mother’s Day. Because of COVID-19, the program will continue through this week.

Women released as part of the campaign organized in the District and Prince George’s County are housed in unsanitary conditions.

In Prince George’s jail, Maye said, soap is provided just once a week and inmates still must pay for it.

Mary Lou McDonough, director of the county jail, has said inmates receive soap daily.

Health care and government officials agree one main factor to combat the virus continues to be daily testing.

Criminal justice advocates said Gov. Larry Hogan has focused on that point in nursing homes, but not on the same level for those incarcerated.

That’s why the ACLU of Maryland and Life Family Support Network want the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections to extensively test inmates and corrections staff.

The groups filed a public information request for documents to analyze the department’s protocols, policies and practices on who gets tested, testing capacity and number of tests conducted.

In addition, institute contact tracing to analyze positive cases and find the people who interacted with officers and inmates.

As of Friday, four inmates have died after contracting the virus.

“The primary way jails and prisons have enforced social distancing has been locking people in their cell for up to 23 hours a day,” said Sonia Kumar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU. “As long as we’re not enacting robust testing, contact tracing [and] sanitation our facilities are going to rely on prolonged lockdowns to manage the virus. It’s cruel.”

Robert Green, secretary of the corrections department, explained some of the agency’s work during virtual briefings Thursday before the Maryland House Judiciary and Senate Judicial Proceedings committees.

Green said the agency consults with the state Department of Health on how to target testing, analyze results and managing the inmate population.

He said officers receive temperature checks, but no one-site testing gets conducted because officers and other staffers considered symptomatic report to their personal care physicians.

Sen. Shelly Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) said if staff must report their prognosis to a supervisor “and then it makes it way up the chain” that could take several days to reach higher-level administrators.

“That seems to be quite a bit of a delay,” she said. “I’m just wondering if there are other ways of getting that information more quickly and efficiently back to the supervisors and the powers that be.”

Green said occupational health nurses are immediately notified and begin contact tracing. He said staff aren’t working overtime and slowed the movement of staff between other facilities.

“We’re always looking for the process to evolve and become better at every turn,” he said.

Stay-at-Home in Prince George’s

Meanwhile, Hogan eased stay-at-home restrictions last week to permit outdoor recreational activities such as golfing, fishing and boating.

If the Republican governor sees a downward trend of hospitalizations and patients admitted to the intensive care unit, he may implement the first stage of the three-part recovery plan this week. That would permit the reopening of some businesses, certain medical and dental procedures, and limited outdoor religious activities.

That may not happen in Prince George’s, especially with the majority-Black jurisdiction leading the state with the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and having nearly as many deaths as neighboring Montgomery County.

“No, we won’t be ready as long as we have increasing positive cases,” said Ernest Carter, chief health officer for the county. “If they’re increasing, then we’re not flattening. We’re flattening when every day it’s the same number of cases. When they start to go down per day and we get 14 days of that…and that’s when reopening can really occur.”

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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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