Md. correctional officers, union employees call on state for better COVID-19 protections
MARYLAND – Almost one thousand trade union employees on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are speaking out. Employees at prisons, mental hospitals and youth centers say state agencies are not taking the right precautions to protect them.
The concerns are being raised not only by members of AFSCME, a trade union. Now, Maryland Senators and members of Congress are making a plea to Governor Larry Hogan. They’re specifically asking him to address COVID-19 outbreaks at state prisons. This comes as the state reports a total of 136 confirmed cases including one inmate death. Luckily, none have been reported on the Shore but employees are still worried about the future.
Rownite Stevens has over ten years of experience as a correctional officer at Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover. “What would we do if there was a break out there at the institution? We just need to try and protect ourselves so we can protect our families. Do what we need to do in order to stay safe.”
Stevens says they’re changing the way they do things amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. “[Inmates] don’t go up to the chow hall and like I said as far as the rec, we are breaking out like five cells at a time which are ten inmates and they go in for an hour and then sanitation and the other group goes in for an hour.”
Patrick Moran, AFSCME Council 3 President, says there’s only so much room to social distance inside facilities like ECI. “You have people, many people close to 10,000 people working in very closed environments such as prisons, mental hospitals, and youth centers where there is no opportunity to practice social distancing.”
Maryland officials admit that total social distancing in a correctional setting is very challenging but they say they’ve been proactive on a number of fronts. They also tell 47 ABC that all staff are being outfitted with Personal Protective Equipment but “facilities with one or more documented cases of COVID-19 are being prioritized for distribution.” Since there have been no cases confirmed at ECI, they admit it’s possible they don’t have enough PPE there.
“Our members are not getting proper PPE. They are often inadequate or not consistent and that is a huge problem,” says Moran.
Stevens says they have face shields but they often get fogged up, making it harder to do their jobs. “The N95 masks. If we had those masks because we are in a correctional facility and they are saying the N95s are a better mask. The cloth masks that we have, that’s little better protection but not a whole lot of protection that we need,” says Stevens.
“We want to make sure that the people relying on the state of Maryland for services are getting in the healthiest and safest manner possible and at this point they are not,” says Moran.
Maryland state officials say they’re doing quite a few things to prioritize health and safety amidst COVID-19. For example, they are checking temperatures of staff and doing health questionnaires at every shift change as well as offering a 24-hour family hotline (410-769-6419) so that loved ones of incarcerated men and women can ask questions related to COVID-19.
47 ABC also asked state officials about whether they were planning to open up an on site medical facility at ECI like they have at other state prisons. They say they are working with federal and state authorities to evaluate multiple locations throughout Maryland.