A federal judge on Wednesday said she will require a Maryland jail in a COVID-19 hot spot to implement measures to prevent the virus from spreading inside the facility, but she isn’t ordering the immediate release of medically vulnerable prisoners.
During a hearing, U.S. District Judge Paula Xinis said the written order she intends to issue within two days will include requirements for the Prince George’s County Jail to administer coronavirus tests and identify and isolate infected or symptomatic inmates.
On April 21, Civil Rights Corps attorneys filed a federal class action that claims the jail failed to stop an “uncontrolled” coronavirus outbreak or properly care for infected prisoners. The lawsuit says prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19 were isolated in cells with walls covered in feces, mucus and blood.
“The plaintiffs prevailed but on a narrow set of circumstances in my view," the judge said as she explained why she agreed to issue a temporary restraining order.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers asked Xinis to order the release of medically vulnerable prisoners. The judge declined to do that on Wednesday, but she didn’t rule out revisiting the request.
“After weeks of talking to terrified and sick people in the prison and their frightened family members, we are relieved and grateful that the court plans to order relief to address some of the most serious problems at the jail,” Civil Rights Corps senior attorney Katie Chamblee-Ryan said after the hearing.
County attorneys have said jail officials acted proactively to protect inmates and staff from the virus.
The jail was detaining 544 prisoners, including 12 juveniles, as of Wednesday. Last Thursday, the county provided plaintiffs’ lawyers with a list of 70 medically vulnerable prisoners. As of Monday, all but two of those individuals remained incarcerated at the jail, according to a court filing.
The county said on April 26 that there were 18 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the jail population, but only 20 prisoners had been tested.
“So that means out of the tests administered, there is a 90 percent positive rate. That is a stunning number,” Xinis said during a May 1 hearing, according to a transcript.
Prince George’s County, which abuts Washington, D.C., has had 12,446 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the most of any Maryland county, and 432 confirmed deaths as of Wednesday, according to the state Health Department.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers also said the jail is holding at least 113 prisoners who have been authorized for release by a state court but haven’t been cleared for release by the county’s pretrial services department. Four additional prisoners were ordered released by a court but remained detained as of Monday, the attorneys said.
The county draws a distinction between court-authorized and court-ordered releases. Its lawyers say nobody has been illegally detained in violation of a court order. The county corrections department must ensure that its electronic monitoring criteria and other requirements are met before a prisoner can be released, said Jeff Logan, chief of the department’s population management division.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys say the county hasn’t identified any law that prevents it from deviating from or altering its policies and freeing prisoners with court-authorized releases. “It's within its power to do so and yet the (corrections) department is not doing it,” Chamblee-Ryan said.
But the judge said the evidence presented so far doesn't tilt toward a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs on that issue. “Not right now,” Xinis added.
Civil Rights Corps has filed similar suits over conditions at jails in Miami, Dallas, Chicago and Detroit.