Pressed to protect inmates from Covid-19 infection, state officials have released hundreds from Maryland prisons and recently announced plans for universal testing in prisons and juvenile facilities.
But advocates say serious infection risks remain at the Central Booking and Intake Center in Baltimore and have asked a federal judge to release more than 100 “medically vulnerable” detainees there.
In spite of a recommendation by a medical monitor to “depopulate” the facilitate to the extent safely possible, the number of people held at Central Booking has recently increased, rising from 555 on May 1 to 689 on May 18, according to Debra Gardner, legal director for the Public Justice Center (PJC).
Meanwhile, she said, the configuration of the space within the facility makes it impossible to adequately separate detainees.
“We’re asking the judge to do what’s necessary to provide a constitutionally adequate level of safety within the facility,” Gardner said. “That basically has to mean releasing people. There’s not another solution.”
No Comment from State
On Tuesday, the Public Justice Center, the ACLU National Prison Project and other plaintiffs filed a supplement to their April emergency motion seeking relief “from risk of injury and death from Covid-19” as the population at Central Booking “spirals upward.”
The actions come as part of the decades-old litigation over conditions at Baltimore city detention facilities currently overseen by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera.
Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the agency is unable to comment on ongoing litigation.
He noted that the department has limited control over deciding who they release. The decision, he said, rests with the judiciary and other criminal justice partners.
“It’s important to note that the population under the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services’ custody is first filtered by the direction of law enforcement and sentencing decisions beyond the Department’s control,” Vernarelli added, in an email to The Brew.
Confirmed Cases Rising
In April, Barbera ordered trial courts to identify and release prisoners statewide who are at risk for the coronavirus and pose no threat to public safety.
Vernarelli said there have been 3,399 individuals released from state facilities between March 1 and May 1.
Of those releases, 940 were from central booking in Baltimore City, 1,207 were from pretrial detention, 1,024 were released from sentenced custody, and 228 were transferred from facilities to be supervised by the department’s Home Detention Unit.
But Gardner said the release process has been going too slowly. Because the courts are now mostly closed and only a few judges are working to handle emergency cases, she said, some release hearings take two or even three weeks to schedule.
To allow for safe social distancing, the facility must reduce inmate capacity by 50% – Debra Gardner.
So far, six people in Maryland prisons have died. Although the rate of coronavirus infection is relatively low compared to other states, civil rights advocates say not enough testing has taken place.
“Many more will sicken and die unless the defendants take immediate steps to comply with the unanimous recommendations of public health experts,” the memorandum reads.
According to Gardner, at least nine detainees at Central Booking have tested positive for Covid-19, along with seven staff members and eight employees of contractors who enter the building.
To allow for safe social distancing, the facility must reduce inmate capacity by 50%, she said.
The problem of social distancing appears to be more dire for detained men since the male side of Central Booking is currently at 89% capacity compared to 44% capacity for women.
Weighing Safety Risks
Part of the challenge for the state is that most of the low-level offenders have already been released, Gardner said, meaning courts must now weigh the health concerns of detainees who may be charged with significant crimes like first-degree murder.
Very few of the inmates considered at high risk have actually been released from prison, lawyers say.
“What’s a hard call is that some people facing more serious charges are also at high risk, and they are putting other people at risk for disease and death,” she said.
Since the original motion in April, the state worked with an independent medical expert to create a list of 107 detainees in Baltimore who, because of their age or medical conditions, were at high risk of serious illness if they became infected with Covid-19.
The problem is that very few of these inmates have actually been released since then, Gardner and other plaintiff attorneys said in a recent filing.
“Lives are at stake”
Testing at Central Booking has increased and the facility is setting up a separate isolation location. Eventually, Central Booking will be part of the new universal testing initiative. But Gardner said that too much time passed before these changes were made.
As recently as May 5, according to the legal filing, no detainees were tested. Gardner said it was alarming that two detainees were found to test positive on May 12, but by May 18 the number had risen to nine.
As recently as May 5, no detainees at Central Booking were tested – Debra Gardner.
To the state’s credit, Gardner said, the booking center is working to improve safety by sanitizing high-touch areas more frequently and providing additional soap to detainees.
But if the prison wants to slow the spread of the virus, she said Maryland should follow the lead of other states by decreasing the prison population.
“It’s certainly a challenge for any court to address, but more lives are at stake with every passing day,” Gardner said. “We’re urging the federal court to step in and help solve the problem.”