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ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Public Health experts are calling for states to take extra precautions for prison populations during the coronavirus outbreak.
Now, prisoners’ rights groups say Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s call to use incarcerated people to make protective equipment for others shows disregard for prisoners’ lives.
Sonia Kumar, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, says the state’s prisons and jails haven’t even implemented social distancing or given early release to nonviolent or elderly incarcerated folks as in other states. Yet, she points out that officials are having these same vulnerable people produce protective gear for just a dollar an hour on average.
“It is truly astonishing that the state would use prison labor to make masks to protect others without taking the needed steps to implement social distancing and other protective measures in prisons and jails across the state,” she states.
Kumar says that two weeks ago, Maryland’s prisons only had two COVID-19 cases. By last Friday, that number had shot up to 17.
Kumar notes that Hogan’s order puts an unequal burden on the state’s large black and brown incarcerated population. She says the medical conditions that make people the most susceptible to the coronavirus, such as heart disease and diabetes, are overly represented in Maryland’s African-American and Hispanic prison population.
“This is very much a racial-justice issue,” she stresses. “You know, Maryland’s prison population is very racially disproportionate relative to the state’s population. About 70% of the people in Maryland’s prisons are black, when about 30% of the state’s population is.”
Maryland has the highest percentage of imprisoned African-Americans in any state in the nation, according to a new report from the Justice Policy Institute. The racial difference is most pronounced among young adults ages 18 to 24.