Their repeated calls for Hogan to act took on more urgency this week after the state correctional system announced the first inmate death from covid-19. A total of 136 people have tested positive within the system as of Thursday, a figure that includes 105 correctional officers and other employees.
Advocates are pressing Hogan to use his sweeping executive power to identify for release high-risk elderly inmates, those with chronic medical conditions and inmates nearing the end of their prison terms as governors have done in other states such as Kentucky and Colorado.
In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has proposed giving the Department of Corrections the authority to release inmates within one year of completing their sentences. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has granted extra “good time credits” to facilitate release of certain inmates convicted of misdemeanor offenses.
Hogan on Friday dismissed the criticism, saying that many appear to have “missed some of the things we have been doing,” including a dramatic reduction in the nonviolent prison population through the Justice Reinvestment Act of 2016.
“We’ve taken almost all the actions that people have been recommending,” Hogan said. “And we’re continuing to take more steps every day. . . . It’s not an issue that we’re not concerned about, but I’m not sure how many more letters we need to get that’s going to help us along in that process.”
But public health experts say Hogan’s less aggressive actions are at odds with the reality of conditions inside state correctional facilities, where inmates are in close confinement, eating together and sharing toilets and showers.
“Gov. Hogan has been a leader in his response to the coronavirus generally, including for people in close quarters like nursing homes, but he has abdicated responsibility for people in prisons, who are at enormous risk,” said Leonard Rubenstein, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who organized a letter to Hogan from more than 200 colleagues.
Rubenstein told the governor in a second letter this week that it is “likely that many more deaths will follow unless those who are most vulnerable are released.”
“Lives are at stake: Incarcerated individuals are sentenced and detained to deprive them of liberty but not to heighten the risk of severe illness or death.”
Hogan’s spokesman Michael Ricci said the governor has taken several steps to protect inmates, noting that Maryland is one of the first states to shut down all visitation and volunteer-led programs at correctional facilities.
“With every decision the governor makes, he has in mind the health and safety of Marylanders, including our incarcerated population,” Ricci said in a statement.
Ricci said the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has also worked with local jails to temporarily suspend intakes, utilized its authority to accelerate certain releases “where safe and appropriate,” and provided protective equipment to employees and inmates.
Among the long list of measures put in place by the department: temperature checks and screening for staff at each shift change; “grab n go” dining at most facilities; waiving inmate medical co-pays; and extending recreation periods for inmates while suspending contact sports.
In a letter to the governor Thursday, Democratic members of the Maryland congressional delegation commended Hogan’s administration for enhancing hygiene at state facilities and creating isolation units for those infected with covid-19. But the delegation said such actions are not sufficient to protect inmates, state employees and their families.
The delegation urged the governor to use his commutation power to “accelerate the release of inmates who pose little risk to public safety but whose continued incarceration would increase the risk of an outbreak amongst the state’s prison population.”
“The continuing spread among inmates puts them, the staff and the medical personnel assigned to the correctional facilities at risk,” according to the letter from Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin and Reps. Jamie Raskin, John P. Sarbanes, David Trone, Steny H. Hoyer, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Anthony G. Brown.
Lawmakers also raised concerns about the lack of personal protective equipment for state employees working in correctional, juvenile services and psychiatric hospital facilities.
Oluwadamilol Olaniyan, a shop steward with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and correctional officer at Jessup Correctional Institution, implored Hogan to provide guards and other state workers with face masks and other tools to ensure their safety.
“If we on the front lines are not being protected the way we should be protected we are bringing this virus to our families,” Olaniyan said during a call set up by union leaders.
Olaniyan is in self-quarantine after becoming exposed to another guard who tested positive last week.
“We are not afraid of doing this job,” he said. “We are afraid that we don’t have the proper equipment” to do the job.
Earlier this week, the chief judge of the state’s highest court took steps to reduce the number of juveniles and adults detained in Maryland. Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera directed judges throughout the state to identify at-risk inmates for possible release.
But civil rights advocates said only the governor can order the corrections department to work with the parole commission to come up with a list of inmates who are most vulnerable to the virus and those who are close to finishing their prison terms.
“There’s no way the courts can operate with the breadth and speed and completeness with which the governor can act,” said Sonia Kumar of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which filed an emergency petition asking the state’s highest court to help speed the release of inmates.
“Part of what is missing is that sense of urgency,” she said. “The fact that nothing to that effect has happened is very troubling.”
Erin Cox contributed to this report