The executive order also allows corrections officials to accelerate parole and home detention decisions as a tool to try to safely reduce the vulnerable prison population.
Sex offenders are not eligible for early release.
The order comes days after officials announced the first covid-19 death among inmates. It also follows more than a month of advocates lobbying Hogan to release high-risk elderly inmates, those with chronic medical conditions and inmates nearing the end of their terms.
“This is a hard-won victory for the families, public health advocates, and law enforcement officials who have been urging the Governor to reduce the number of people in detention since the earliest days of covid-19,” Sonia Kumar, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said in a statement.
At an April 3 news conference, Corrections Secretary Robert L Green said there were 17 novel coronavirus cases within the system. As of Thursday, 136 people had tested positive within the system, including 105 correctional officers and other employees.
There are approximately 24 state prison facilities in Maryland and about 18,000 state inmates.
Hogan initially rejected the idea of releasing inmates, saying a month ago that “they’re safer where they are” and likening correctional facilities to a quarantine space. “I don’t think it’d be a great idea,” he said about releases at the time.
His position was in contrast to the actions taken by others governors across the country, including in Kentucky and Colorado.
In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has proposed giving the Department of Corrections the authority to release inmates who are 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.
In Maryland, state correctional officials instituted temperature checks and screening for staff at each shift change; “grab-and-go” dining at most facilities; free inmate calls and video visitation; increased hygiene protocols; and a ban of visitors and volunteers.
Hogan’s executive order, however, notes that “because of inmates’ close proximity to each other, employees, and contractors in correctional facilities, the spread of covid-19 there poses a significant threat to their health, welfare, and safety, as well as the communities in which they live or to which they will return.”
Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who sent three letters to Hogan urging him to take quicker, bolder action to release prisoners, applauded him for following the “common-sense” advice of public health experts and others.
“This virus is not going to stay contained in the prison walls . . . it comes back into our community,” Mosby said, noting the risk to correctional officers and their families. “These actions are going to prevent deaths — not just of inmates but of correctional staff.”
Leonard Rubenstein, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, organized a letter to Hogan from more than 200 colleagues. In a second letter sent last week after the inmate died, Rubenstein wrote that it is “likely that many more deaths will follow unless those who are most vulnerable are released.”
Kumar said she hopes the state will consider the release of many of the medically vulnerable, calling it both a “human rights issue and a racial justice issue, since we know that due to structural racism the overwhelming majority of Marylanders who are incarcerated are black.”