“This pandemic is moving and morphing for all of us,” Xinis said during a hearing held by videoconference because of coronavirus concerns. “Every institution is dealing with this rapid-fire information.”
As of Thursday, jail officials reported testing a total of 715 inmates, with 26 testing positive. In a recent round of testing of 448 department employees, there were two positive results.
“We surpassed what she asked us to do,” Department of Corrections Director Mary Lou McDonough said of the judge after the hearing Monday. “We’re doing everything we can, as quickly as we can.”
Despite the judge’s assessment and test results, civil rights advocates insisted Monday that inmates are still encountering filthy conditions, delays in medical care and subpar screening for symptoms of covid-19, the disease the virus causes. The allegations come two months after the Civil Rights Corps went to court on behalf of inmates to challenge jail conditions.
“There is a consistent mismatch between what the jail represents it is doing and what it’s actually doing,” said attorney Katie Chamblee-Ryan, a senior attorney with the Civil Rights Corps.
In May, Xinis found the county acted with “reckless disregard” in response to a virus outbreak at the jail in April and ordered jail officials to submit plans for ensuring testing, training employees, and improving conditions and treatment to protect medically vulnerable inmates.
At the end of the two-hour hearing Monday, the judge announced she would not extend her temporary order and found the jail has complied by implementing a “reasonable” plan to respond to the risk.
“While not necessarily perfect, it’s not an unreasonable plan,” the judge said.
She suggested the two parties continue to share information, including regular updates on testing, and ordered jail officials to continue to ensure an adequate supply of soap, cleaning supplies and masks. She also ordered the jail to keep shoring up social distancing measures.
Shelley Johnson, associate county attorney, told the judge that the county is in full compliance with her order and that all new inmates are being tested.
“As we learn more about this virus, we are constantly reviewing our policies and doing what is necessary to protect the health and safety of the inmates,” Johnson said.
But lawyers for the Prince George’s inmates said there are still shortcomings when it comes to screening inmates for symptoms and quick access to treatment. Jail employees, for instance, asked a 60-year-old inmate with a chronic lung disease and heart failure to clean all of the isolation cells in which inmates who had tested positive for the virus had been housed, according to court filings.
Jail officials in late May reported six positive cases from inmates who staff members said were asymptomatic. But when lawyers interviewed five of the six, they said, the inmates said they had symptoms such as coughing, chills and a loss of sense of smell. Two who reported symptoms to jail employees said they were not isolated or quickly assessed.
Michael Montgomery tested positive for the coronavirus while incarcerated in late March and described the jail as “a breeding place” for the virus.
The medical isolation unit, he said during a news conference before the hearing, was “the nastiest cell you could be in: fumes from old food, feces, urine, mold, bugs, all while fighting covid.”
“If you’re not a strong person, you will lose your mind because of the situation and how they treat you,” said Montgomery, who was released about a month ago. “They treat you like you’re an animal.”
The judge pressed the county about such allegations of unsanitary conditions and concerns that the lockdown currently in place is “overly punitive.” Johnson, the associate county attorney, called the characterization “baseless” and said medical staffers would not place inmates in filthy cells.
McDonough, who observed the hearing via videoconference, said it is too soon to loosen restrictions because of concerns about a resurgence of the virus. Under the current system, 10 inmates in each unit are allowed out of their cells for an hour at a time.
Even as the judge expressed “tremendous empathy” for the stories of individual inmates, she repeatedly raised doubts about the relevance of the recent declarations from inmates submitted by the civil rights group. The judge seemed to struggle with the idea of relying on a small number of anecdotes as evidence of widespread shortcomings at the jail.