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Address the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons, advocates urge state officials

April 30, 2020

Once inside a detention facility, COVID-19 can move fast, infecting prisoners, correctional officers, and others who work there. Social distancing is nearly impossible in such confined spaces, and maintaining necessary hygiene is difficult in facilities that already struggle to provide adequate healthcare. In April, the PJC joined the ACLU of Maryland, the ACLU (national), Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, Arnold & Porter, family members of people who are incarcerated, and public health experts in calling on the Court of Appeals and Governor Larry Hogan to reduce the population in Maryland’s jails and prisons in order to keep the virus from spreading.

In a petition filed with the Court of Appeals on April 6, we illustrated the need to act quickly to protect those who live and work in detention facilities. Family members of prisoners expressed concern that their loved ones with chronic illnesses and disabilities are especially at risk of contracting COVID-19 and dying from it while in detention. Public health experts described how the virus could spread from infected correctional officers to others in their communities. We argued that releasing certain prisoners would allow them to practice social distancing at home and reduce the risk of the spread of infection in detention facilities and beyond. We urged the Court of Appeals to take the following actions:

In addition to advocacy with the courts, the PJC and many other advocacy organizations* sent a letter to Governor Hogan with similar concerns and recommendations.

In recent weeks, Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera and Governor Hogan have responded with orders that will begin to reduce the population in jails and prisons. Although the Court of Appeals denied our petition, Chief Judge Barbera issued an Administrative Order requiring judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to consider which prisoners are at risk of dying of COVID-19 in detention and could be released. She told judges to weigh whether a person is at risk of catching or spreading COVID-19 in detention when deciding whether to hold them before trial, before sentencing, or pending appeal. She also issued an order to release youth from juvenile detention facilities who can safely return to the community.

Governor Hogan’s executive order encourages state prisons and county detention facilities to release prisoners who were scheduled for early mandatory supervision, home detention or accelerated parole in the next four months, are 60 years or older, and do not pose a threat to public safety. In determining whether prisoners are eligible, officials should consider factors such as age, health, pregnancy, and special needs.

While we are heartened by the orders from the Chief Judge and Governor, the state must do more. We will continue to urge detention facilities to comply with health and safety standards for prisoners who will not be released and to hold the state accountable for decarcerating as many people as possible. We are advocating for measures to permit social distancing within prisons and jails, including continued reduction in populations inside, access to testing, adequate protective equipment, sanitation supplies and protocols, and medical quarantine and treatment for those diagnosed or exposed to the virus.


* The following organizations signed the letter to Governor Hogan: Advocates for Children and Youth, ACLU of Maryland, Baltimore Action Legal Team, Campaign for Youth Justice, Justice and Recovery Advocates, Justice Policy Institute, Life After Release, Lifer Family Support Network, Maryland Office of the Public Defender, Maryland Prisoners’ Rights Coalition, Open Society Institute-Baltimore, Out for Justice, Power Inside, Public Justice Center, The Sentencing Project, Sex Worker Outreach Project-Baltimore Chapter, Youth Advocate Programs