On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Correctional facilities can be potential hotbeds for COVID-19. These facilities are prone to overcrowding, poor hygiene and an inadequate health care system, which can create conditions for the coronavirus to spread.
According to the ACLU, current projections show that as many as 23,000 people in correctional and detention facilities across the country can die from the coronavirus.
In Maryland, there are mixed responses for how correctional and detention facilities are to deal with the pandemic. Governor Hogan signed an executive order to release hundreds of inmates from prisons, after insurmountable pressure from justice reform and other advocacy groups. However, the Civil Rights Corps filed a lawsuit against Prince George’s County’s Department of Corrections, on behalf of the inmates, citing poor hygiene and unsanitary conditions.
How have Maryland’s correctional facilities prepared for the coronavirus? Are correctional officers and inmates safe? What does this mean in terms of public safety?
Produced by Richard Cunningham
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. I'm broadcasting from home. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll speak with U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo about her most recent book "An American Sunrise" and how she's using literature to cope with life during the pandemic. But first correctional facilities are potential hotbeds for the Coronavirus.
KOJO NNAMDIAccording to the ACLU, as many as 23,000 people in correctional and detention facilities across the nation may die from the Coronavirus. Maryland has had a mixed approach to dealing with the Coronavirus in correctional facilities. Earlier this month Governor Larry Hogan signed an executive order allowing early release to hundreds of inmates to mitigate the spread of the virus in facilities across the state. But in Prince George's County detainees have sued the jail over poor hygiene practices. Joining me now is Hanna Gaskill who is a Reporter for Maryland Matters. Hannah Gaskill, thank you for joining us.
HANNAH GASKILLThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIHannah, Maryland's Governor Larry Hogan has signed an executive order granting early release for hundreds release for hundreds of inmates. What are the requirements for an inmate to be released?
GASKILLRight. So, Hogan earlier this month authorized the release of inmates who are within 120 days of their set release date. And he has also authorized the Maryland Parole Commission to expedite the parole of inmates, who are 60 or older who are in good standing with the institution and have approved home plans. And this applies to people, who have been convicted of crimes that are not sexual offenses.
NNAMDISo who is not eligible for early release?
GASKILLPeople who have been convicted of sexual offenses, people who may not be deemed safe to return back to the public.
NNAMDIAlso joining us is Stuart Simms, an Attorney at Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP and spokesperson for the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform. Stuart Simms, thank you for joining us.
STUART SIMMSIt's my pleasure. Good afternoon.
NNAMDIStuart, should Maryland grant early release to more inmates?
SIMMSYeah, the good news is that Maryland is taking a step, a decent step albeit a little late. The important news particularly in the issue of human rights and public health is that particularly for individuals 55 years or older who represent an imminent health risk additional steps should be taken.
NNAMDIWhen you say inmates 55 years or older who represent an imminent health risk, do you mean all inmates 55 or older represent and imminent health risk or there are specific inmates in that age group who represent an imminent health risk?
SIMMSInmates 55 years or older, who do not present a risk to public safety and who have significant health factors that can be affected by COVID, because the issue here is one of public health both inside the institutions and in the communities that they'll be returning to.
NNAMDIThe governor says 60. You say 55. What's the difference apart from five years?
SIMMSI just think the suggestion is is that they should begin looking at that age. It's not a mandate. But the suggestion is that they begin looking at that as an initial starting point.
NNAMDIHannah Gaskill, what is Maryland's Department of Corrections doing to protect its inmates?
GASKILLRight. So earlier this month the House Judiciary Committee and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee sent a letter to Secretary Robert Green asking what procedures are being taken in DPSCS facilities to protect inmates. And he responded that they have suspended visitor services and opted instead for video visitation. They have limited inmate movement through facilities. And he also said that they're screening corrections officers as they enter facilities.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Olevia Boykin, an Attorney at Civil Rights Corps, a nonprofit that challenges injustices in the law. Olevia Boykin, thank you so much for joining us.
OLEVIA BOYKINThank you so much for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDICivil Rights Corps has filed a lawsuit against the Prince George's County Department of Corrections director. What have you heard from the inmates about the situation inside the jail?
BOYKINWe're hearing from people that they are afraid for their lives and rightfully given the jail's response to the virus. If you are in the jail right now and you don't have money in your account, you can't pay to get medical care. You can't pay to buy soap. Soap is not being provided for free. So there are a number of people who are too poor to pay for even soap. They've provided thin paper masks that are being used for weeks at a time. Not wiping down phones and the jail is already experiencing an outbreak. There is at least 45 confirmed cases. So all of these conditions are exacerbating the spread of the virus.
NNAMDIOlevia, how has the Prince George's County Department of Corrections responded to your lawsuit?
BOYKINTo date, we filed last week and we've gone through one round of briefing. And the general response by the jail is not one that says the jail is safe. They're not really arguing that. Instead they're saying, were trying really hard. And for that reason we're pretty hopeful that we'll be able to work together and implement some immediate solutions to keep people safe.
NNAMDII should mention that the Prince George's County Department of Corrections did not respond to our invitation to join this conversation or to provide a statement. So, Olevia, what happens next in the case?
BOYKINWe are still waiting from the judge to hear what could happen next. It could be a jail inspection as it's been ordered it the D.C. lawsuit. It could also be a hearing on our emergency motion. And I'll just note that the lawsuit is just one part of the movement to protect people in Prince George's County from the virus. We're working with Life After Release and Black Lives Matter D.C. and Color Change who are working on the ground to urge public officials to take immediate action.
NNAMDIOlevia Boykin, what effect would this case have on the community beyond the jail?
BOYKINOur top concern is public safety. And right now there is an unmitigated devastating outbreak happening in the jail. And what happens in the jail won't be confined to the jail. Prince George's County is the epicenter for the virus in the Greater DMV area. And each day there are people in the jail such as guards and nurses, who get to go home, and at the end of the day they could be bringing the virus home with them, and then some of their spouses, some of their children will be essential workers and their take the virus out into the community. So if we're successful in this lawsuit we'll not only protect the people in the jail, but also people in the surrounding region.
NNAMDIHere's Ryan in Maryland. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANGood day, Kojo. I just wanted to thank you for covering on this topic. I wanted to point out something here. I work for the Justice Policy Institute and we're using a forecasting tool by a non-profit called Recidivist that allows us to look at the actual data in the prison population and forecast the spread of the virus. Unfortunately Maryland does not do a good job of reporting actual positive tests within their facilities. And I wanted to fly to get a feel for the reduction that's proposed by the governor's executive order of about 800 people actually has a very small overall effect. We forecast that within about three weeks they'll be at 6400 people of cases of incarcerated folks in the Maryland prisons that are tested positive for COVID-19.
RYANThis 800 person reduction only leads to about 150 fewer cases. So the reality is that prisons no matter how deep the reductions are just an absolute hotbed of spread of this communicable disease, and we really urge Maryland and Governor Hogan to provide better testing, more positive data on their testing rates. That way were able to get a feel for the overall trajectory because these forecasting models are really alarming.
NNAMDIYou're saying -- your forecasting model says 6400 in what three weeks?
RYANIn three weeks, correct, based on the current projections. And we went through this morning and reduced by 800 based on the executive order of Governor Hogan and that only resulted in about 150 fewer off the forecast, because the reality is with 16-17,000 people locked up in Maryland prisons letting 800 people out over the course of four months is really barely a drop in the bucket.
NNAMDIHannah Gaskill, Maryland's Chief Judge ordered the state to release young offenders as well. What was the story behind that?
GASKILLRight. So the Office of the Public Defender earlier this month petitioned the courts to allow for the release of youth in state custody. A week later about just a little bit over Chief Justice Barbera issued an instructive order telling lower court judges to release eligible youths. Earlier this week, actually, the Department Secretary Sam Abed briefed the House Judiciary Committee on what's happening in their facilities. And he revealed that not only have they reduced the number of intakes, but they've also lowered the racial disparity in their facilities since the virus has started to spread in the state.
NNAMDIAnd, Hannah, how has Governor Hogan's office responded to the judge's order?
GASKILLFor the Department of Juvenile Services?
GASKILLI honestly am unsure. It wasn't necessarily accounted for in his executive order that he issued for the Department of Public Safety.
NNAMDIOlevia Gaskill, first you, but then also you, Stuart Simms, what do you say to people who are uneasy about the idea of inmate release especially of violent offenders who may not be sexual offenders. They may have simply committed crimes like armed robbery. First you, Olevia Gaskill.
BOYKINYes. To people who are concerned about releasing people, public health remains our top concern. Public health consequences of allowing the uncontrolled outbreak to continue in what is already the epicenter of the outbreak for the region are far greater for all of us than letting people go home and self-quarantine.
NNAMDIHow about you, Stuart Simms?
SIMMSThe fact that you're incarcerated is not a death penalty. And the rapid rate that your caller just indicated -- the 19th Public Safety posted that there were 157 cases that they had in the system. Excuse me, 107. And just yesterday or Sunday April 26, they reported 157. That's some significant growth assuming it's accurate.
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to interrupt, because we have to take a short break. Hold that thought. When we come back we'll continue this conversation. We're still talking your calls at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about how correctional facilities in Maryland are dealing with Coronavirus. And when we took that break, Stuart Simms, an Attorney at Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP and spokesperson for the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform was responding to a question about people who are uneasy about the idea of inmate release especially of violent offenders. Stuart Simms, please continue.
SIMMSAs one of your other guests indicated and as I indicated, this is a public health question, it's important for those inside an institution as well as in the community. And to that extent I think the criteria become important. And I think the criteria that is generally proposed in the executive order is appropriate. I think also you got to trust in public officials to try to make the assessment risk that is important. And this started -- that is public safety seems to have started with the easiest layer of individuals that they could. But that's only four percent of the population. And you've got to get additional portions of the populations or depopulate the institutions in order to avoid a much more serious public health problem.
NNAMDIOn to the phones. Here's Fahere in Potomac, Maryland. Fahere, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FAHEREYes. I have a son who has been incarcerated for the last four years in MCTC in Hagerstown. And I'm not going to talk about the conditions. As we all know, it's not so good. But I have a question about the expedited home detention that is in the governor's order. It says (unintelligible) wards with diminishing credit as deemed necessary for the expedited release on mandatory supervision, who are eligible for expedited home detention. So my question is my son has had 31 months and onto 18 months to his mandatory release. He's eligible to home detention I know, but are they going to calculate his diminishing credits so that he will be eligible for home detention at this time?
NNAMDIWhat do you mean by his diminishing credits?
FAHEREDiminishing credits is called -- they take for non-violent crime. He has a non-violent crime. They give 10 days for every prisoner for his work, ten good days for every month. That's the diminishing credit. So if they actually make awards of those diminishing credits earlier he would be -- according to our calculation would be released for the expedited home detention. So are they going to actually give those credits earlier?
NNAMDIHannah Gaskill, do you know?
GASKILLI do not. I would assume that that is within the bounds of the Maryland Parole Commission to determine, but I don't have a definitive answer.
NNAMDIOkay. And Fahere, thank you very much for your call. And good luck with your son. On now to Debbie in Florida. Debbie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DEBBIEHi. Thank you for taking my call and covering this topic. I have a relative who is awaiting trial in the Worcester County Detention Center who is over the age of 60 and to my knowledge no one in that facility has been able to have been given release to be given safe haven from the Coronavirus in their home. And if they're awaiting trial and they're not a threat to society I'm not understanding why there has been no action taken to help these people. It's causing them tremendous stress. They're of the age where it is a detriment to their health. It is in the jail at the moment.
NNAMDIAnd, Debbie, you're saying that's in Worcester County, right?
NNAMDIAnd you're saying that's in Worcester County?
DEBBIEYes. In the Worcester County Detention Center in Snow Hill, Maryland.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, before I ask Stuart Simms if he has any response to that, here is Joe in Delaware who also wants to talk about Worcester County. Joe, your turn.
JOEHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my phone call. Yeah. I have a relative who's in Worcester County Detention Center in Snow Hill, Maryland, who is almost 65 and again has not been released from the jail.
NNAMDIStuart Simms, do you what's going on in that county jail?
SIMMSThe governor's order does not mandate that local jail institutions depopulate. I think it's going to be up to the administrative judges of each county. Worcester County is on the eastern shore to determine whether or not individuals are eligible for other forms of pretrial detention or release. In Baltimore City we have a state's attorney and other, who made public statements with regard no violent offenders and the fact that -- and also not processing certain kinds of non-violent cases in order to depopulate the jails. However, with respect to of those for assaulted behaviors and serious crimes I think the further conversation is going to need to be held with lower health officials and the administrative judges of those counties in order to prompt them to act further. And get other styles of release.
NNAMDII mean, Joe in Delaware, thank you for your call. Now onto Lin in Silver Spring, Maryland. Lin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LINHi, thank you very much, Kojo. Thank you for your program. I was wondering when I heard that folks in prison have to pay for their own soap out of their commissary fund, my guess is they pay more for soap than you and me. And I was wondering besides the fact that I'm going to call Governor Hogan about that, because they should be provided soap, but how do we contribute to a commissary fund for that. And the other thing is I'm all for people who should be released and to receive the medical care. At the same time and not to say that this is true of all people who are incarcerated, but many do have mental illness. And when they do become incarcerated then they get on their meds and everything. And when they're released they don't have anybody to follow them and make sure that they're taking their meds.
LINAnd then it does become a problem for the family members. So just I think that when they're released there should be follow-ups to make sure that they're doing okay once they are released. And to protect the people that are incarcerated while they're still there so that they get sick and they get the healthcare they need.
NNAMDIWell, Lin, the fact that our prison system and our jail systems have become repositories if you will for people with mental illness is a topic that we have covered in the past and probably will in the future. But in terms of getting soap or money to buy soap to inmates, I'll have Olevia Boykin respond to that. Olevia, how can Lin help?
BOYKINIt's a great question. And, Lin, I just want to echo a lot of things that you said and all of the callers calling about people who are medically vulnerable and have other medical illnesses in the jail. Just for what it's worth the Prince George's County jail has seized medical care for anything not COVID related, and they've stopped mental health services all together. In terms of what people can do I think reaching out to the local groups like Black Lives Matter D.C. and Life After Release who are working to urge public officials to do something would be a great first step. And then our social media accounts, we'll reach out to them as well and see if there's anything we can do to setup some sort of commissary fund. I think that's a great idea.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Lin. On now to Micah in Arlington, Virginia. Micah, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICAHHi, Kojo. Thanks so much for taking my call. I'm calling about a friend who's incarcerated in Coffeewood Correctional Facility in Virginia. He was written up for a violation in his facility. He is in there by the way for probation violation, a nonviolent offense. And as a result of being written up he's been put in solitary. It was a very quick investigation with absolutely no oversight from the outside because the facilities are closed down and there are no visitors allowed. And the consequence of the investigation they say is that he has to be transferred to a higher level facility.
MICAHThe facility he is in now is a level two, so it's a fairly low level. And now they're saying they have to transfer him to a level four facility, but because of Coronavirus there are no transfers. So now according to them he has to stay in solitary until Coronavirus is finished in their words.
NNAMDIAnd you're saying that your relative is in prison for a non-violent offense, Micah?
MICAHYes. It was a probation violation. So it was a status offense.
NNAMDIAnd they're saying that he has to stay in prison indefinitely?
MICAHNo. So he has to stay -- so his probation violation incurred a three year sentence. And now he has to stay in solitary until he finishes out the sentence or until the Coronavirus ends.
NNAMDIPresumably they're staying in solitary for his own safety?
MICAHNo because according to the investigation, which again there was no oversight, according to the investigation he now belongs into a higher level security facility. And since they can't transfer him to a higher level security facility they are going to keep him in solitary, yeah.
NNAMDII understand. Well, I'm glad you shared that story with us, but it's not one that I think any of our commentators can comment on especially since we're just about out of time, so good luck to you and your relative. And Hannah Gaskill, Olevia Boykin and Stuart Simms, thank you all for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk with U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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