COVID-19

Maryland Races to Curb Spread of COVID-19 Inside Prisons

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Health officials are racing to try to contain the coronavirus inside some of the hardest hit spots in the D.C. area. Several Maryland correctional facilities are suffering an explosion of cases, according to a review by the News4 I-Team.

Visits inside Maryland prisons stopped a year ago, leaving Ofe Heng with only Skype calls to stay in touch with her fiancé.

“This is probably the hardest part right now,” she told the I-Team.

Her fiancé is serving time in Hagerstown for a robbery conviction in Prince George’s County.

Now those calls have stopped, too. Heng said her fiancé feels like a sitting duck.

“Yeah, like he feels like he can’t do anything,” she said.

The News4 I-Team first reported on the wave of COVID-19 cases inside jails and prisons nationwide last spring. Now, a larger, deadlier wave is striking Maryland, leaving families and inmates worried. Heng's fiancé is just one inmate trying to avoid the virus in Hagerstown, where positive cases have nearly doubled since November, according to Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services reports.

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That includes Sophia Duncan’s husband, Jo Jo.

"When I heard him talk and he sounded so congested and he can barely talk," said Duncan.

She said he's recovering now, but it's taken a toll on him and his family.

"And when he told me that he felt like he was dying, like my heart broke; like I felt like I couldn't do anything for him," she said.

A News4 I-Team review of recent state correctional cases shows many Maryland prisons are seeing a spike.

Jessup currently has more than 340 positive inmates. Cumberland has almost 380, and Eastern has more than 1,000.

All that despite efforts by the state to slow the virus. A state correctional official told the I-Team, as of December, the agency had distributed more than 10 million pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE), including 100,000 cloth face masks and nearly 600,000 bars of soap.

“Right now, it’s about you saving you and you saving me,” correctional officer and union rep Olu Olaniyan told the I-Team in the fall.

He said he and hundreds more officers are trying to keep social distance between themselves and inmates and want surgical masks for more protection.

"Give us more PPE. Give us whatever it takes to keep us safe,” said Olaniyan.

Current Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services reports show 1,949 staff have tested positive.

Frontline correctional staff are already getting the vaccine, including facilities with a high number of cases such as Hagerstown, where close to 400 officers received the first dose.

A union rep told the I-Team an officer there died last week from the virus. Olaniyan worries vaccines for inmates won't occur in time to stop the spread.

DPSCS declined a request for an interview but said in a statement it “has been among the most aggressive correctional agencies when it comes to vaccinating its employees and remains committed to the health and safety of its employees, inmates and detainees.”

A spokesperson said the agency has meticulously planned and coordinated its vaccine rollout and will be starting Dose 2 clinics in the next few days and that the department has acted with urgency and precision in attempting to vaccinate as many employees as possible as quickly as possible.

The state could not say how many inmates have been vaccinated but said it's following guidelines beginning with those age 75 and older.

Meanwhile, families of those serving time, are left to wonder what time will bring.

“It’s overwhelming,” Heng said. “We as a family can’t do anything to stop it.” 

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

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