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Corrections officers and prison abolitionists will join together Saturday to protest the lack of PPE and testing, and the need for parole, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore for the Real News Network. Over the past few months, we have been following the cases of COVID-19 in the prison systems in Maryland and around the nation. Two months ago in April, Governor Hogan was pressured into declaring that he would release at least 2000 prisoners. The criteria was that they had to have less than four months or they had to be in such critical shape that they would require getting in the hospital. Since that time, very few of those 2000 prisoners have been released. And because of that, grassroots movements and civic organizations have joined together to protest this month in Jessup, Maryland. Joining me today to give us an update and an overview of what’s happening in the prison system is Nicole Hanson, who is the executive director of Out for Justice, Monica Cooper, the executive director of Maryland Justice Project, and Joe Cox, who is the field representative of ASME, that’s representing the correctional officers union.

Before I start, I’d like to say this. There’s been 290 cases of COVID in the prison system so far that’s been reported. 200 of those cases are correctional officers, 77 of those cases are prisoners and 13 of those cases are civilian employees within the correctional system. So if you could, Monica, give me an overview of what’s going on in the prison system and update us.

Monica Cooper: Well, since the last time we talked, there does seem to be some improvement in terms of video visitations in the women’s institution, and some other things that’s going on that should’ve been going on all along. But we still feel like those things are slow and late in coming. One of the things that even though the system and the correctional facilities are trying to now start to accommodate people, we still hear stories about people who are not being tested. Once a person is perceived to may have some symptoms or whatever, they put these people inside a space by themselves, isolate them, and call themself putting them there for isolation. It’s only until the person is really, really bad off do they decide, okay, well maybe we should take this person out, rather than not wait until they’re that bad off that they got to go out 911.

We just recently heard that a young … well she’s elder. Her name Amelia [Rahrahs 00:03:39]. She’s about 80 years old. She just tested positive for COVID supposedly. We don’t know, because again, they keep so much secret. It’s hard to find out what’s really going on because they listen in on phone calls. They screen people’s mail. So it’s really hard to find out what’s going on when just like other persons in our country, they are trying to keep their numbers low. I guarantee you, if people are tested, those numbers would be off the chart.

Eddie Conway: Joe, if you could, please tell us what’s going on within the correctional officers staff. Over 200 officers has tested positive for COVID-19. What’s the status now?

Joe Cox: That we know about Eddie, because I just want to echo a lot of what Monica said about how hard it is to get good and timely information on anything going on. So everything she said is accurate. There are some things that the department has done well, but it’s taken them too long, and we weren’t able to keep the virus out of the jails. Officers now have N95 masks, which they should have had three, four weeks ago at the latest. They now have those. And as Monica said, the department’s done some good things, doing video visits so we don’t have a lot … We’re limiting the number of people coming in and out of the institutions to control the virus. And the department did start screening officers at the door for symptoms, all of which is good. But she’s absolutely right that there are some very important things that they are not doing.

Three weeks ago, more than three weeks ago, on April 27th, Public Safety Secretary Robert Greene promised our membership in a meeting that he agreed with our demands that are the same as Monica’s demands, that every inmate, every officer, every employee in a correctional institution needs to get tested for the virus because otherwise any attempt to quarantine people is just guesswork based on who has symptoms, and we all know people spread it without having symptoms. As of this date, none of that has happened. I’ve been told from the department that we will soon, as soon as maybe today, get some protocol in expanding testing for officers. I have heard nothing about expanding tests among inmates. And as you guys know, officers should be tested at work, but they also have the option of going to their doctor, and inmates can’t get tested unless the department tests them.

And so we very much support the call to test every inmate now because inmates deserve to be protected and officers deserve to be protected, and our membership is not safe if we don’t know which inmates have coronavirus and which ones don’t. And the only way we can know is that they get tested.

Eddie Conway: Okay. Nicole, I understand you’re looking at women, not only in the state prison system, but in the jails, the county jails and city jails across the state. Give us an update on what’s happening with women that are being incarcerated.

Nicole Hanson: So, as of today, our women are not reporting being tested. They’re only reporting that they have to show all three signs in order to go into an isolated space with no real … not no real, but we need medical professionals who are equipped to deal with a pandemic like COVID. Currently, there are not enough doctors, not enough physician assistants, not enough nurses in our facilities to accommodate the requests that our women are having to be tested. We know the Department of Corrections is not testing our loved ones. We like to refer to them as incarcerated citizens, and our families and friends, they’re not testing. And so there’s no real way to get any accurate numbers. The only number that the department is able to push out is the numbers of when that person is transported to a civilian hospital. And that is when they know that the individual has COVID. They don’t know that the individual has COVID unless they’re transported out to an outside civilian hospital. So, that’s one.

And as we all know, if you’ve been formally incarcerated, there’s this level of honor system that happens even in the institution, where people who are closer to administration get access to things that other people who don’t have certain relationships don’t. So not everybody is getting access to these screening visits. On a local level, we are dealing in a crisis right now. We have women and men, but my area of focus is women, that are sitting in jail, pre-trial with no bail. And these are offenses that pre-COVID, folks would have at least gotten a bail, or folks would have been dismissed on their own recognizance. However, at the first stage of incarceration, the commissioners are giving them a no bail. And then the judges are standing on the no bail. But then when folks are able to get back into court through what is called the habeas process, through which the attorneys are now having to file emergency motions for release under COVID-19.

When they all getting back in court, there’s this wave of everybody going on home detention. And as you know, everybody cannot afford home detention, especially in a situation like we are now, where people are losing their job. The family members and friends of those that are incarcerated, which was typically the support system of our folks, they don’t have the monetary support that they would have in a normal situation to support these home detention costs. To set up home detention, it’s around $300. And so we are finding our people are paying the sum of $400 to $500 a month to be on home detention. Those are fees that can go towards food, shelter and even preparing for your legal defense. And so there’s this wave of home detention recommendations, even by our office of public defender, because there’s this idea that this is the only way I can get out. And it’s a problem. It’s becoming a real problem that the only way that we can get our people free that makes the judge “comfortable” is that home detention is recommended.

The other thing is our governor put out an executive order that would allow for people to be released on home destruction. And we have many people qualify for the indigent home detention through the state. So what that means is if you cannot afford home detention, the state has to now supplement the fees, but we don’t have enough staff in the prisons and in the jails to qualify for the state home detentions are forced to sit in jail an additional four to six weeks. So somebody that works in the jail comes to verify their home plan and the like. So then people are forced to say, “Well, I’m just going to try to go with the private home detention,” in an effort to get out sooner. We have judges who have gone on the record saying even when the [inaudible 00:12:20], that client cannot afford home detention. You have a judge on the record saying, “Well, they’re going to have to figure it out. They’re going to have to figure it out.”

And then when you cannot pay those fees, you are immediately, a warrant for your arrest is immediately issued and you’re ushered back into the institution.

Eddie Conway: Okay. Monica, you have been organizing a protest action for this weekend with a coalition of groups. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Monica Cooper: We are planning a direct action in the Jessup region for all of the facilities that’s in that region. We’re going to start at the women’s facility and we’re going around to Clifton T. Perkins and we’re going around to the facilities that’s in the area because all of those people are directly impacted by COVID. And for the first time in history, I am proud to say that we are linking up with the correctional officer’s union. And like I had mentioned earlier, that is really a unlikely pair, myself, being a formerly incarcerated person. People coming and participating are formerly incarcerated people. And we are representing incarcerated people, as well as correctional officers. We’re all in this thing together. We all see that testing is the absolute most important thing that could happen right now, besides the governor considering releasing people who are having underlying conditions, people who are 60, 70, and 80 years old that are at risk of losing their lives. People who are dag-gone, they’re out the door.

They’re holding folks up. There’s people who are sitting there that made parole, that’s still sitting there. There’s people who’s sitting there that’s supposed to be transferred to a pre-release unit. They’re still sitting there. So everything is just, it’s not moving as usual and it’s just even worse than what it would be. They’re already slow. The system is already slow to release people. They quick to put you in there, but it’s hard to get out. They slow to release people. So we are expecting to put some pressure on them and say, “You have to do more.” Saying that you’re going to release people that’s four months within their release date, 2000 people, and you’ve only maybe released 70, 80 people. The number is extremely low. Saying that the Health Department is going to come up with this protocol for testing, and it still hasn’t happened. That’s not acceptable.

My guess is that the administration and a correctional personnel is actually trying to wait until this thing dies down before they actually do anything. They’re buying their time. They’re trying to just wait and see, the cases are going to go down, so they think, and they think that it’s going to be okay, but we are looking at the fall. We are looking at an even worse infection rate when the fall rolls around. The CDC have already warned us that this is going to be a really tough time when we get into the flu season. So we need to continue to do those necessary things right now to help protect people. Nobody should have to go to work for eight hours and end up in a coffin. Nobody should be sentenced to five years, seven years, 10 years, and end up dead.

They didn’t get sent to a prison or didn’t get sentenced to death. And that seems like what’s happening is that people don’t understand the severity of what’s going on. So we are definitely going to be there. We’re going to have this caravan of justice. We’re going to stop traffic. We’re going to get the attention that we need. We’re trying to get the media out. So if anybody’s in the media that want to be there, we’ll be in Jessup and we put that information out. I think you have the information. We got it all on Facebook. We might go ahead. I think we got a press release scheduled within the next 24 hours, because we really, really want people to understand that it’s everybody that’s involved in this situation that we need some action and we need it now. Nobody should have to die from COVID inside these institutions where something can be done about it.

Eddie Conway: Joe, okay, I understand that you, ASME, as part of this protest, what demands are you all making on the governor or government officials?

Joe Cox: So, we’re echoing Monica’s demand that the governor test all detainees, whether they’re inmates or detainees, staff, whether they’re correctional officers or other staff or contractual staff, everybody inside of correctional institutions, inside of juvenile detention facilities, inside of Maryland state hospitals to keep people safe. And to echo back on what Monica said about what a new coalition this is and how formidable it is, in response to our caravan yesterday, and I think with knowledge that we’re moving forward on this thing for Saturday together, the governor just announced to the Baltimore Sun during this interview about 10 minutes ago that he will be testing all the inmates, all of the [inaudible 00:17:35], but I’m sure Monica agrees with me that that’s great. We’ve heard that before. Like I said, we heard this from secretary Robert Greene more than three weeks ago.

So I’m glad that the governor has said that now. And we’re going to keep going forward until everybody at all correctional institutions is tested. It’s just like Nicole said, just like Monica said, we don’t know anything about how to control these viruses inside a correctional institution until we know who has it and who does not have it. And testing is the only way to get there.

Eddie Conway: Nicole, I’m seeing Out for Justice has been going down to Annapolis to the capital, dealing with the delegates in the Senate. Is there any support for this action? Is there any calls or demands on the governor?

Nicole Hanson: We do. We have the support of elected officials like Deborah Davis. We have support from elected officials like Senator Jill Carter, Delegate Erek Barron. Who else? Delegate Crutchfield out in Montgomery County. And all those elected officials who supported reentry bills last session. We have Delegate Bagnall, all of the black women who sit on the House Judiciary Committee, we have their support, but they are not enough. We need the Senate president to step up, Bill Ferguson, we need his voice in this game. We need our house speaker, a black woman, Adrienne Jones, out of Baltimore County, we need her stepping up calling for the governor to not only release individuals who are within the governor’s timeframe of four moms, but also individuals who are close to being released. We’ve got women who are on pre-release status eligible to come into communities every day and work. These women should be released.

But also we need the speaker of the house and the Senate president to call on the Department of Corrections to test, because we know through the work of Delegate Mosby to call for the ratio equity lens in the report, the black and brown individuals who are getting tested and could be. Our communities are the most impacted. We need those individuals to step up. It cannot just be us. It cannot be the few black women who sit on the Judiciary Committee. It cannot be the few black men who have stepped up when policies were formed, like Erek Barron and like Nick Mosby. That’s a small few. And so while we do have their support, we need the support of the whole legislature. I remember an article where a group of Republicans talked about the need to test behind those walls to ensure that when we are coming back into communities, we’re safe and we’re able to quarantine.

I’m currently sitting in a house right now that Out for Justice is a part of, that is paying the rent for specifically women coming out of prison to ensure that they have a place to come, because we can call for the release of our women and men, but then the other part is where do they go? And where is a safe space for them to go that they can quarantine for 14 days under the CDC guidelines and under the governor’s guidelines? So, in addition to ensuring that we get the testing, we need to also get support on how we’re going to place our loved ones when they get out and how we’re going to place them in a safe way and for them to have the ability to quarantine.

So just to answer your question, we have a few supporters. I know the Coalition for Safe and Just Maryland also stands with us at this rally to test individuals. We’ve got partners, as far as Prince George’s County Life After Release, that will be there with Monica to support. So we have a lot of support, but we really, really need those legislators to make a specific call to support those folks behind those walls getting tested.

Eddie Conway: Monica, can you tell us what date, what time and location this rally will be?

Monica Cooper: A brief update. I guess about an hour ago, I received a letter from Delegate Crutchfield of Montgomery County, and the letter has a lot of the lawmakers signed onto it, but it’s specific for the release of Eraina Pretty. That letter is going on to the governor. The lawmakers are asking that the governor consider releasing Eraina Pretty, a young lady that’s been incarcerated for 42 years and she unfortunately fell victim to COVID-19. Thank goodness, she’s doing a little bit better, but you don’t want to keep subjecting yourself to that. It’s almost like if you have anaphylactic shock, you had an allergy to something, and you come in contact with it again, it’s 10 times worse. So we don’t want to run that chance. But to get back to your question is the address where we’re meeting at is 7371 Assateague Drive, Jessup, Maryland, 20794. We’re going to meet that at two o’clock. And that is right across the street from MCE in Jessup, Maryland. Again, that’s 7371 Assateague Drive, Jessup, Maryland, 20794. We’re going to meet that in the parking lot at two o’clock.

Eddie Conway: Joe, do you have any final words?

Joe Cox: Sure. Just 7371 Assateague is the International House of Pancakes down there. So look for that, right there on 175, like Monica said, Also, yeah, please come out. If you aren’t even connected to an organization, but you care about keeping inmates healthy, keeping correctional staff safe, or keeping your neighborhood safe, because like Nicole was saying, like Monica was saying, inmates come home, staff from correctional institutions come home. If you want to keep your neighborhood safe, we know that the hotbed of the virus in every state is these 24/7 facilities. And so let’s keep them safe. Let’s get everybody tested.

Eddie Conway: Monica, do you have any final words?

Monica Cooper: Well, I guess some parting words I would just like to impart on the listening audience is that we are faced with a time that most of us haven’t seen before. We are living and walking in history. In years to come, when we look back on this thing, like people look back on the 1918 flu pandemic, and all of those different things that challenge humanity. We are now being challenged with things that threaten our very existence. And I don’t think that we can ill afford to look at each other and say, “That one deserve to live. That one deserves to die.” We shouldn’t put ourselves in those situations because if it’s your elderly mother inside a nursing home, you will want her to live. You don’t look at your nursing home settings and say, “Well, they old. They lived their lives already. So who cares of 60 people die at this nursing home facility because they old. Who cares?” And we don’t want people to look at folks who are incarcerated and say, “Well, they did something wrong. They did something bad. Then who cares what happens to them?”

Because the correctional facilities is the same type of setting that you find in nursing homes. And we need to treat it as such. And I just want to, again, impart on the listening audience that we are living in some serious times. We have some serious times that we have to really consider how we are interacting with one another. Whether you’re wearing your mask, not wearing your mask, want to open up the city, want to leave the city closed. We have to consider how we are interacting with each other because we have a serious threat, and that threat will be realized one way or the other.

Eddie Conway: All right. Well, we will continue to follow this story and we’ll try to get back with a report about the rally next week. So thanks for joining me, Nicole, Monica and Joe. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars through the Real News.

Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Cameron Granadino, Ericka Blount Danois

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Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.