This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.
A civil rights group filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday alleging unsanitary conditions at the Prince George’s County Jail and seeking release of medically vulnerable inmates.
The Civil Rights Corps filed the emergency class action complaint against Prince George’s County Department of Corrections Director Mary Lou McDonough, alleging that the jail has ignored hygiene recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lawsuit was filed with more than two dozen declarations from inmates, describing conditions including a lack of soap and hygiene supplies, overflowing trash bins and unsanitary conditions.
The county announced the first COVID-19 case in its corrections department on March 30. On April 3, four additional cases ― three inmates and a correctional officer ― were announced. The lawsuit claims there is an “uncontrolled outbreak” in the facility and cases in the jail could be as high as 77, based on information from staff and inmates.
“It seems like almost everyone is sick,” one of the inmates wrote.
Six of the plaintiffs who filed the case have pre-existing conditions, and five of them have symptoms of COVID-19, according to the lawsuit.
“They ― along with approximately 600 other prisoners ― are trapped in a Jail that endangers the sick. Absent this Court’s intervention, many will suffer and some will die,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit asks a federal judge in Greenbelt to require the jail to implement new safety policies and release medically vulnerable inmates.
In a statement, Prince George’s County officials said they were unable to comment Tuesday evening. “The Director has not been served as of yet and she has not conferred with counsel, so we cannot comment at this time,” a spokeswoman said.
The lawsuit includes a description of an isolation unit in the jail facility:
“For fear of contracting COVID-19, corrections officers will not remove the overflowing trash bags, which are filled with vomit and spit. Sick prisoners ― who may be vomiting, sweating, and have diarrhea and high fevers ― lack access to basic hygiene products. Many do not have soap. Some have not had toothbrushes for over a week. They are still not allowed to shower (which means that some go without bathing for more than two weeks). All of the sick men share a single, mildewed sink. Prisoners may go five or six days without being able to change their clothes or underwear.”
The lawsuit also claims that common areas in the jail are not regularly sanitized and there is no meaningful physical distancing while inmates are kept in cells 23 hours a day.
The lockdown policy effectively traps prisoners in close proximity to people who may be sick, according to the complaint.
“The jail must take basic steps to protect people from the virus, including providing free access to soap and monitoring prisoners’ symptoms. Being locked in jail should not be a death sentence, but that’s exactly what it will be if the County does not take immediate action,” Katie Chamblee-Ryan, senior attorney for Civil Rights Corps, said in a statement.
Prince George’s County is the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in Maryland. As of Tuesday, the county had 3,734 confirmed cases and there were at least 111 deaths there, according to the Maryland Department of Health.
There has been an effort in the county to decrease the local jail population.
Also on Tuesday, Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha N. Braveboy (D) announced that the office’s “Operation Safe Release” initiative had resulted in the release of 150 county inmates since March 1.
“Since the start of this pandemic, we have been concerned about the possibility of infection at the detention center and have been actively working with the Office of the Public Defender and the Department of Corrections to reduce the population,” Braveboy said in a statement. The release program focuses on inmates nearing the end of their jail terms or charged with low-level offenses.
There were 718 inmates in the county’s detention center on March 1, which had been reduced to 568 inmates by Tuesday, according to the state’s attorney’s office.