By Stephen Janis and Taya Graham
Special to the AFRO
Baltimore resident Sean Weston has been in the District of Columbia Central Detention Facility for 10 months, even though he’s not been convicted of a crime. But, as inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, he feels like his sentence has already been meted out.
“We’re not given anything to clean ourselves, no disinfectant nothing. You’re locked down for 23 hours a day, it’s scary,” Weston, 52, told the AFRO in a phone interview from jail.
Since his arrest for selling items in a local convenience store he owns, that can be used to cut drugs but are legal, the military vet who suffers from high blood pressure says conditions inside the city facility have gone from bad to worse as the COVID-19 pandemic has spread.
When inmates began to test positive, authorities instituted a 23-hour lockdown, Weston said. A move that prompted pushback, and even more drastic measures after some inmates protested by throwing trash out of their cells.
“They shut off the water for hours, we couldn’t even use the toilet,” he said. “There is nothing you can do, we’re in such close quarters. Most medical experts say a prison is a place where communicable diseases thrive.“
“This is a death sentence, and I haven’t even had a trial.”
D.C. jail officials did not respond to an email request for comment, but Weston’s fears are not unfounded. Last week The Public Defender Service and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit alleging D.C. corrections were endangering both guards and inmates by failing to provide proper protective gear.
Meanwhile Maryland announced the first death of an inmate due to COVID-19, a 60 year-old inmate housed in the state’s Jessup facility. Authorities say he died April 12.
On April 13, a 51-year-old man was the first inmate to die in Washington, D.C. because of COVID-19. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the inmate died at the D.C. Detention Center where Weston is being held.
Last week state corrections officials announced 93 inmates and correctional officers had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The mounting number of cases prompted demands for better personal protective equipment from union who represents corrections officers.
“There is a tremendous amount of concern because in most cases, officers do not have proper PPE,” said Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Council 3, a union that represents 25,000 state employees
“There is no testing, that is part of the problem. The only time you get tested is if you display the symptoms and we know now you can be asymptomatic and carry the virus.”
Since the virus began showing up in Maryland’s correctional facilities, state officials have barred visitors. D.C. also instituted similar restrictions.
But calls from advocates and Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby to free lower level offenders has been met with silence from Gov. Larry Hogan. Mosby recently renewed calls for Maryland to take steps to clear both jails and prisons of non-violent inmates.
“More than two weeks ago, my office provided the Governor with a plan that was signed onto by criminal justice and public health experts from across the state. To date, the Governor has yet to respond to that plan nor come up with his own,” Mosby said in a statement.
But the lack of action does not surprise advocates for those still incarcerated.
“At this point catching the virus behind bars is all but inevitable,” said Michael Willis, a formerly incarcerated Baltimore resident who now advocates for inmates.
“The state system, where releases are controlled by the parole board, could grant inmates who have already served a substantial amount of time behind bars immediate release,” he said.
Part of the problem is the country’s historic emphasis on incarceration.
Currently the U.S. imprisons more people than any other country on earth, roughly 2.3 million people. And because African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated, the crisis inside the country’s massive prison industrial complex threatens to exacerbate the deadly burden the pandemic has already inflicted upon Black communities.
“I understand they have to do what they have to do to keep us safe. But the way they’re doing it is just not smart,” Weston said.
“We’re sitting ducks.”