Coronavirus spreads in DC region’s prisons as families, advocates worry and seek action

WASHINGTON – The number of coronavirus cases inside correctional facilities across Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia are rising, while inmates, staff and their families grow more concerned.

There are 57 confirmed cases of the virus inside Maryland correctional facilities, including 10 inmates, 22 correctional officers, three Division of Parole and Probation employees, 19 contractual staff, one clinical health employee and two office of the secretary employees as of Thursday, according to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Also as of Thursday, there were 30 inmates, who have positive for the virus in District jails as well as 11 staff members, who had tested positive, according to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

Virginia’s prisons have 47 confirmed cases of the virus, including 20 inmates and 22 staff members, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Inmates across the area and their advocates have sought to prevent more people inside the facilities from becoming infected.

Justice Policy Institute, a prisoners’ rights organization, along with similar groups, have requested that Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan decrease the population inside the state and local facilities.

Additionally, the group is calling for Hogan to release low-level offenders, inmates who have approaching release dates, inmates who are medically compromised and children who are in the state’s custody. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of D.C. filed a class action lawsuit last month against Washington’s Department of Corrections on behalf of more than 1,600 inmates.
The lawsuit alleges that the department did not do enough to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in its facilities. Also, that the department did not test its inmates adequately for the virus. 

“The DOC has failed to implement many basic procedures — steps as simple as distributing sufficient hygienic products and providing prompt medical attention and testing to those with COVID-19 symptoms — and has waited far too long to implement others,” the lawsuit read. The ACLU predicted the virus would spread like “wildfire.”

Twenty-seven Virginia inmates filed a lawsuit against Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and 12 prison wardens on the basis that the state is not doing enough to keep inmates safe from the virus, according to WWBT in Richmond. A Virginia attorney is also working to get non-violent offenders released from prisons in the state to reduce their chances of contracting the virus. 

“At the end of the day, they’re wards of the state and the state has the responsibility and the constitution gives a guarantee that they can be taken care of at the basic level and right now they’re the most at risk,” attorney Elliott Harding, who is helping lead this lawsuit, told WWBT.

So far, neither Hogan nor Northam have released any inmates or responded to other demands made in the lawsuits. 

Despite inmates and their advocates claiming poor conditions in prison facilities, Maryland corrections officials are taking extra precautions with inmates once they are released back into society, according to Mike Ricci, Hogan’s communications director. 

Chronic care inmates will receive a 60-day supply of their medication after they are released, rather than a 30-day supply. And adequate transportation will be provided for inmates to their homes once they are released, Ricci tweeted. 

Facilities across the region have issued statements saying that they are taking precautions to keep inmates and staff safe. 

All facilities are equipped with soap and water and are being cleaned regularly, according to officials.
Visitations for inmates have been canceled, Maryland inmates have been given free soap every week and Virginia inmates are required to wear face masks at all times. D.C. jails are equipped with N95 masks, according to the Districts Department of Corrections website. 

Maryland inmates have been working to make hand sanitizer, face masks and other personal protective equipment, according to Public Safety Secretary Robert Green. Inmates are usually compensated for their work, but they are not being given access to the PPE they are producing, according to Julie Magers, director of Maryland Prisoners Rights Coalition.

“Prisoners will NOT be allowed to have access to any of the products being produced,” Magers said in an email to Capital News Service. “Each facility tends to do whatever they want regardless” of the directive.

Issues in correctional facilities are widespread across the country. There are almost 300 federal inmates and 125 Bureau of Prison employees who have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website.
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