The Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland is suffering a COVID-19 case spike, raising fears of a widespread outbreak among inmates and raising questions about safety precautions in place inside the prison.
Jessup is one of the state’s largest and most secured prison facilities, but the latest wave of coronavirus cases has infiltrated and spread inside the prison and several other Maryland correctional facilities, according to state records reviewed by the News4 I-Team.
The prison experienced a 50 percent increase in cases of COVID-19 among inmates between October and November. The increase is happening despite and amid tight restrictions on movements inside and into the facility. Recreation time is limited to just one hour a day, according to the inmates and officers who spoke with the I-Team.
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) has restricted visitation at its prisons to reduce the risk. A spokesman said the agency also has “robust” contact tracing and screenings for those entering prison facilities.
Multiple inmates, families and a union representing correctional officers point to a late October security sweep for the possible introduction of another wave of the virus at Jessup.
“There was a shakedown last month,” said Jessup correctional officer Olu Olaniyan. “That shakedown was probably why they had that rise in cases.”
Olaniyan, who represents other correctional officers as a leader of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees of Maryland, said the state prison system brought outside staff into Jessup to assist with the security sweep. Olaniyan said the inclusion of outside staff increased the risk of virus spread.
Inmates and relatives of those incarcerated told the I-Team they have similar concerns about the timing of the security sweep.
“Why did they do this shakedown? To me that’s just inviting trouble into the prison, bringing in officers from the outside,” said Fay, whose son is an inmate at Jessup, with several years remaining on his sentence. Fay asked her full name be kept confidential out of concern her son would face retaliation inside the prison for speaking to the media.
Maryland DPSCS declined requests for an interview about the case spike or the October security sweep at Jessup. In a statement, the agency said, “Contraband interdiction is critical for the safety of inmates and employees, even during the COVID pandemic. The Department has robust and aggressive COVID-19 testing protocols and contact tracing, which includes the Contraband Interdiction Team and all employees who work in correctional facilities.”
Former inmates told the I-Team prison administrators often order searches, hand-to-hand checks of inmates and their living spaces, when there are fears of contraband or threats of violence inside a prison. Federal court records show contraband smuggling has been a persistent problem in Maryland prisons, including in Jessup in recent years. Nearly 100 people, including inmates, relatives and correctional staff, have been prosecuted for contraband smuggling at Maryland prisons since 2016.
The I-Team review of prison system records show similar spikes in cases in other state prisons this month, including Hagerstown and the Eastern Shore. The increase is dramatic at state prison complex in Somerset County, where cases among inmates increased from seven to 442 between October and December.
State prison officials have instituted video visitation to reduce the number of people entering prison complexes amid the pandemic. Inmates and correctional officers said recreation time is limited for inmates to prevent community spread of the virus between inmates.
“The mission of this Department is, simply put, to keep people alive and safe. That mission is accomplished on two fronts: public safety and public health. One part of the mission cannot be done at the exclusion of the other,” state prison spokesman Mark Vernarelli told the I-Team. “We must continue security operations to keep people safe, even as we aggressively fight the coronavirus. This Department has done everything possible to slow the spread of the virus, while at the same time, keeping contraband out of our facilities. As recently as early November, Maryland ranked 40th among the states in COVID cases per 10,000 inmates. Our COVID plan has been thorough and our effort to keep ahead of the virus exhaustive.”
Inmates and the union representing officers have been advocating for increased personal protective equipment inside prisons. The union has sought better masks, more gloves and hazard pay, according to a union official. Multiple inmates have said the prison system should offer more bars of soap and better masks for the incarcerated.
"I feared for my life since the beginning of this year until when I was released, more than any time during my incarceration," said Alonzo Turner-Bey.
He was just released in October after serving 31 years for murder. Turner-Bey filed multiple complaints with the state correctional system during his final year in custody, seeking more personal protective equipment. Turner-Bey said his asthma placed him at risk of severe complications from COVID-19. His release from prison came weeks before the newest surge in cases.
“I was petrified,” he said.
Prisons systems nationwide, including the federal correctional system, have been grappling with COVID-19 case spikes since March, though not all simultaneously. State records show as of Dec. 4 the Maryland prison system has 3,144 COVID-19 positive cases among staff and inmates. At least 16 have died.
Fay, whose son remains in a two-person cell at Jessup Correctional Institution, said it’s not just inmates, but families that are increasingly fearful.
“It’s just devastating for our whole family,” she said.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones and Jeff Piper.