Regrettably, Maryland has earned the dubious distinction of being the worst practitioner of mass incarceration in the nation, locking up the highest percentage of Black people and for longer periods of time than any of her sister states. The system’s disproportionate use of incarceration has heightened a crisis in the Black community, a community that suffers disproportionate rates of coronavirus infections and related deaths.
Jails and prisons are by their very nature — warehouses for large numbers of people with chronic health concerns for minimal cost — breeding grounds for infectious diseases. The pandemic created the urgent imperative to refashion policies for pretrial and post-conviction release to depopulate state prisons, local jails, juvenile detention centers and commitment facilities across the state to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Our moral imperative is to continue and expand these policies and carry them forward into a post-coronavirus world.
In May, Maryland state Sen. William C. Smith Jr., chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, created the Courts & Criminal Justice System Workgroup and appointed me chair. Other members of the workgroup were Sens. Jeff Waldstreicher, Michael J. Hough, Susan S. Lee and Justin Ready.
Because of various measures taken by the courts, local jails, prisons, prosecutors and public defenders, numbers are down across the board for Marylanders being held in custody. This took months of hard work and compromise. All stakeholders demonstrated courage and willingness to rethink the fundamental notion of incarceration as a public health crisis that served as an exacerbator of the world’s coronavirus health crisis.
This is an encouraging new beginning. Still, more must be done.
Recently, I received a call from Barbara, a 41-year-old inmate at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women who is dying of Stage 4 ovarian and peritoneal cancers. She’s transported biweekly from MCIW to medical facilities for chemotherapy and some testing. Not only does each trip present opportunities for contagion to be introduced into the prison, but also, according to Barbara, each trip causes her incalculable trauma and costs the state upward of $3,000.
Twice a week, she is moved from her regular housing unit to “isolation” to comply with quarantine protocols. She is then taken to the sally port and loaded into the transport vehicle, admitted into the treatment center and, upon return, again placed in quarantine isolation. She is dying and, in her current state of fragility, poses no threat to anyone other than her potential to contract the virus and spread it inside prison walls.
Because jails and prisons are not designed for social distancing, quarantine isolation is akin to solitary confinement, which has been likened to torture, in some instances, and is proven to have chronic psychological and physical effects on individuals subjected to it.
In recognition of our duty to stem the tide of infections among detainees, prisoners and the staff who cover and care for them, our workgroup recommendations are designed to ensure best practices for public health and safety inside and outside prison walls. All stakeholders must continue identifying vulnerable and low-risk inmates and work toward their release to further decrease the threat of infection to other prisoners and corrections staff.
Members of the workgroup urge all jails, prisons and other detention facilities to enforce social distancing while allowing inmates optimal time outside of their cells and providing free telephone and video communications with family members. They must continue universal testing, personal protective equipment usage, and free distribution of personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies to all inmates. Transparency must be maintained through frequent publication of testing, infection and population data.
The workgroup will continue to meet as needed to ensure that depopulation and transparency policies continue throughout the pandemic and beyond, and to monitor their progress.
In the 2021 session, the General Assembly must finally pass legislation to allow the state parole commission to be the final arbiter of inmate release — not the governor, who has served as an impediment to the release of eligible inmates through every administration and during this critical period.
There has been no increased scourge on society from the thousands already released by the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services or the nearly 200 lifers released since the 2012 Unger decision. But the workgroup will continue to study and monitor recidivism among the newly released population.
Maryland has an extraordinary opportunity to move from the worst to the best — from being a leader in mass incarceration to becoming a leader in decarceration. To do this, depopulation and transparency policies incubated during the pandemic must be continued, expanded and monitored.
The workgroup envisions a post-coronavirus criminal justice system that favors citation in lieu of arrest, pretrial release over detention, early dismissal of unsubstantiated cases, comprehensive and robust pretrial services in every jurisdiction in the state, reliance on community detention where needed and a streamlined release of low-risk and vulnerable individuals.