“The doctor will be showing up in short order at the facility,” Xinis responded.
Franco-Paredes will be given wide authority to examine and photograph the jail and speak to inmates and staff members, according to Friday’s hearing. He has been sounding the alarm in recent weeks about the virus’s danger inside the nation’s jails.
“This epidemic has the potential to become the Coming Prison Plague,” Franco-Paredes wrote last month in a letter warning officials of the risks to inmates. “Detention and incarceration of any kind requires large groups of people to be held together in a confined space and creates the worst type of setting for curbing the spread of a highly contagious infection such as covid-19.”
Xinis indicated that based on legal filings so far, she is concerned enough to move swiftly on an inspection to see whether emergency measures are needed.
“I saw areas of great concern to me,” she said.
On April 21, attorneys representing a group of inmates sued Prince George’s County Corrections Department Director Mary Lou McDonough, accusing her jail officials of ignoring recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stop the spread of the deadly virus.
The attorneys requested expedited, court-ordered steps, including the immediate release of medically vulnerable inmates. The litigation also seeks immediate action inside the jail, including more social distancing, more protective equipment for jail staff and enhanced cleaning.
As recently as Wednesday, the attorneys have filed more court papers alleging that the walls of some isolation cells are contaminated with “mucus, feces, blood, old food, urine, spit, everything you can name.”
The attorneys assert the jail didn’t administer its first coronavirus test until March 27. By April 24, it had given 20 tests, and 18 of them came back positive.
“This rate of positive test results — 90 percent — is stunning,” wrote Elizabeth Rossi, Katie Chamblee-Ryan, Olevia Boykin and Ryan Downer — attorneys for D.C.-based Civil Rights Corps.
As of Friday, Prince George’s officials still reported 18 inmates having tested positive for the virus, as well as 31 staff members, according to a jail spokesman. Fifteen of the sickened staff members have finished quarantine and returned to work. County officials also have been working to release more inmates, with the jail population recently lowering from more than 700 to about 550, according to court filings.
In those filings, the county said it has implemented strong policies to stop infections at the jail, including taking inmate temperatures and making accommodations for social distancing.
“We have not seen a surge in cases or an exponential increase in numbers,” McDonough wrote, according to the filings. “I believe this is partly true because of the care and attention we have given to preparation and mitigation of the virus.”
The jail’s medical director, according to the litigation, wrote that inmates “do not face the same threat posed to the public by covid-19.”
Court filings from the county include an April 6 email with the subject line “Increased Social Distancing,” indicating the jail implemented a mandatory lockdown. The email also indicates the county would limit recreation groups to no more than 10 detainees at a time and allow only every other phone to be used to increase space between inmates.
“Unfortunately, we are facing desperate times and we must do what’s necessary to effectively protect everyone as best as possible,” a jail official wrote.
Those statements stand in sharp contrast to those alleged in the lawsuit, which included declarations from inmates who say they are living in filthy cells and lack access to medical care and basic hygiene products.
“I have not had a shower in nearly two weeks,” one inmate asserted. “Instead, I have been forced to wash myself as best I can in a dirty, mildewed sink. In the isolation cell, I had a bar of soap for myself, but now in the ten-man cell I have to share the sink and bar of soap with the other men in here.”
Prince George’s County has the highest number of reported coronavirus cases in the Washington region.
The lawsuit was filed as an emergency class action on behalf of inmates with medical conditions that make them more susceptible to complications from covid-19, the disease the virus causes. Among those identified in the court papers are inmates with chronic bronchitis and severe asthma, including those who have experienced symptoms of the virus. One asked for medical attention or a test, the lawsuit asserts, but was refused and told the medical unit was too full. Another inmate, lawyers wrote in the lawsuit, said he has not seen anyone clean or sanitize any surfaces in his unit.
Franco-Peredes said during the hearing he was honored by the appointment, had inspected jails before, and promised both sides he would do his work “in a very impartial away, always trying to look at the public health angle.”
The judge told the doctor she not only wanted his observations, but his opinions on whether any shortcomings were reasonable, given the challenges of running a jail amid a fast-moving, global pandemic, whether they amounted to a gross abdication of basic duties, or whether they were somewhere in between.
“If it’s a clean bill of health, then so be it . . . . I’m really looking for practical fixes, if warranted, within in the confines” of a jail,” Xinis said. “This doesn’t have the makings of a case that is going away anytime soon, just like the virus.”
Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.