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May 6, 2020

Letter to Governor, DOC Secretary Pushes for Comprehensive Testing Strategies to Protect People Inside and all Marylanders

Read the letter

BALTIMORE, MD – Demanding aggressive testing of residents and workers in Maryland’s places of detention, particularly where there have been confirmed COVID-19 cases, the Lifer Family Support Network (LFSN) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland in a letter today called on Governor Larry Hogan and the Department of Public Safety and Corrections to heed the recommendations of public health experts, corrections staff, and families who are urging the State to expand its testing for those in prisons and jails as it has done for those in nursing homes. 

“Increased testing within the institutions is necessary and needed immediately,” said Martina Hazelton, co-founder of the Lifer Family Support Network. “It is a failure on the part of DOC and the Governor to make any distinction between how they are handling testing in nursing homes and how they are handling prisons. Both facilities are the highest risk because they cannot comply with social distancing mandates and both need to be given the highest level of attention. A life is a life and there is no one life that is of greater value than any other.”

“We’re all very concerned about my dad, who has underlying health issues,” said Autumn Woodland, a member of the Lifer Family Support Network, whose father is over 60 years old. “We believe that testing and immediate treatment are imperative because people who are incarcerated must rely on other people to protect their health. Incarcerated Marylanders, especially those with underlying health conditions, are more vulnerable to Coronavirus. They are in a closed space and can’t choose to distance themselves from staff and other inmates.”
Jails and prisons, like nursing homes and other congregate living situations, have been COVID-19 hotspots in Maryland. Even without any significant testing, there are hundreds of confirmed cases in the Maryland DOC and at least two known deaths from COVID-19. Both of the people who died were Black men over 60 with underlying medical conditions. There are more than 1,000 people aged 60 or over and likely several thousand individuals who are medically vulnerable in DOC facilities. Many of the vulnerable Marylanders can be safely released. 

The CDC has indicated the people living and working in congregate settings –including jails and prisons – are “high priority” for testing.

Other states across the country are increasingly recognizing the urgency of broad testing in places of detention, and when such tests have been conducted, they have shown alarmingly widespread rates of infection.  For example, when officials conducted mass testing at Marion Correction Institution in Ohio, more than 80% of the people living in the facility tested positive for the virus.  

“I hear from a lot of people inside and they’re terrified and desperate to get out of their cells,” said Earl Young of the Lifer Family Support Network, who returned to the community last year after being incarcerated for decades. “Carriers don’t always show symptoms. If you test people inside for the virus then you know who is and isn’t infected and can contain the spread. There are so many places where cross-contamination can occur — during meals, delivery of medicine and supplies, and in the shower. It is impossible to do social distancing inside any institution.”

To date, Maryland has not provided any information publicly about the number of people who have been tested in DOC facilities, but the State’s existing testing protocols are far too restrictive to be of use in managing the spread of COVID-19. Based on DOC’s prior reports and what people in Maryland prisons – both staff and those who are incarcerated – are reporting, the only way to be tested is to be transported off-site, and testing appears to be limited to those who are seriously ill. Staff are responsible for their own testing.  That is not enough to protect the people inside, both residents and workers, and the wider Maryland population from COVID-19. Failing to test also means that key decision-makers—including medical professionals, corrections officials and courts—are not able to make informed decisions about how to mitigate risk.    

“We cannot credibly claim to know the actual numbers of positive COVID-19 cases in detention when almost no one is being tested,” Sonia Kumar, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU of Maryland. “The Governor has been clear that robust testing is critical to mitigating the spread of the virus, especially for those in close quarters, and managing it over the long-term. This is especially true for Marylanders in our places of detention.”

The groups have filed a Maryland Public Information Act request to secure access to DOC documents that show the number of tests conducted, as well as the department’s access to testing, including on-site. The groups also request that the DOC post daily on its website the number of people tested and confirmed cases by facility.  Access to this information is vital to public health in our communities, and is especially critical for Marylanders who have family members living and working inside places of detention.

The groups seek copies of records showing the following information:

  • The Department’s policies, protocols and practices relating to who is tested, specific criteria used to determine whether someone is tested, the process for being tested, and the Department’s capacity to conduct testing;
  • The number of tests conducted to date on behalf of individuals in DOC custody and on behalf of correctional staff or contract staff, by facility;
  • Any plans or efforts to further increase the Department’s testing capacity.

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