By Joanna Silver
Judaism teaches us to protect the most vulnerable among us and to seek justice, “that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you.” That is why Jews United for Justice joined the ACLU of Maryland, approximately 40 other organizations, and hundreds of individuals in asking Gov. Larry Hogan to issue an executive order to protect the health and safety of Marylanders in our places of detention during the COVID-19 pandemic.
JUFJ is made up of thousands of Jews and allies in D.C. and Maryland working for social, racial, and economic justice in our region. We had no hesitation to join the call to protect the health and safety of detained Marylanders.
While we applaud the governor for his leadership during this crisis, he has demonstrated neither leadership nor compassion towards the thousands of residents in our many jails and prisons while the virus spreads throughout our state unabated. The first positive diagnosis in Maryland was announced March 5; as of when this went to press, there are over 4,000 confirmed cases. There is no reason to believe that, once it reaches our detention centers, the virus will not spread as rapidly.
In fact, there is good reason to believe the virus will spread even more quickly in these vulnerable environments. The Legal Aid Society of New York determined that the rate of infection at Rikers Island is several times greater than the rate in New York City overall, exemplifying the dramatic difference between the spread of the disease in the general population and the spread within a detention facility. We are seeing this same pattern begin in our region where the Correctional Treatment Facility in Washington, D.C., had its first positive test result March 25 and, as of when this went to print, there are 18 positive tests, while the Baltimore Sun reported that there have been 17 positive tests in Maryland’s prisons.
More than 200 Johns Hopkins University Public Health faculty also wrote to Gov. Hogan urging him to protect Maryland’s inmates. These experts explain that the virus will spread rapidly in detention facilities because they are closed, congregate environments designed to maximize control of the population. In these environments, diseases transmitted by respiratory droplets spread easily. Social distancing is simply not possible in a prison setting, and quarantines and isolation are not always feasible depending on the capacity of the institution. In addition, prison and jail populations have high rates of chronic health conditions, substance abuse, mental health disabilities, and aging and chronically ill populations who may be vulnerable to more severe illnesses after infection, and to death.
Of greatest concern is that jails and prisons experience daily exposure to new introductions of the virus by staff and new inmates coming in from the community. This risk is enhanced in pretrial detention facilities, which exist throughout our state. In all of our local jails, but particularly in the more populous jurisdictions like Baltimore City, there is a constant stream of people who have just come out of the community, have had close physical contact with members of law enforcement, and are now introducing any virus particles they were exposed to into the closed detention center. And this cycle continues as staff and inmates leave the jail on a daily basis, either to reenter the community or to transfer to a different facility.
This is one reason why so many public health experts conclude that reducing the detained population is a critical tool in reducing the pandemic nationwide; they recognize that correctional health is public health. If we can reduce the number of inmates overall, we can reduce the impact that this at-risk population has on the community at large, including on our health services, which will bear the brunt of a sick inmate population given that correctional facilities have limited medical resources and will not be able to provide the respiratory therapy and intensive care that the sickest individuals require.
JUFJ’s work on criminal justice reform over the years has taught us that there are so many people in our jails and prisons who do not need to be there: elderly men who have been locked up since they were teenagers; nonviolent offenders with relatively short sentences who will soon be reentering our community; people with serious health conditions; and thousands of pretrial detainees who would be released were they able to afford bail.
Among many other practical measures including cleaning, testing, and treatment, the
letter to Gov. Hogan urges him to release these inmates. This call is simply an expression of the commandment from Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse … choose life, that you and your children may live.”
Joanna Silver is a Jews United for Justice leader, an attorney, and a member of the Community Social Action Council of Temple Emanuel in Kensington.