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Racial disparities in Maryland prisons are affecting COVID-19’s spread, with majority white populations receiving protective equipment even as Jessup institutions with majority Black populations struggle to get supplies.

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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, your host. We have been following COVID-19’s rise across the country and obviously it’s rising even more dramatically now. But we have been looking at the impact that this pandemic have had on prisoners. Over 70,000 prisoners in the United States has tested positive so far. And because we’re in Maryland, we’re looking at Maryland and asking the question what’s happening here. And we see that almost 5,000 prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19, but what’s disturbing is one particular jail in the Jessup region has the most cases. It has over 350 cases. Of the deaths that’s occurred in Maryland, most of those deaths also have occurred in the Jessup region. And of course there’s five major regions in the state with massive prison complexes, but the Jessup region seem to be the one that’s hit the hardest.

So joining me today to kind of explain what’s going on and talk about these cases in Maryland is Gregory [Shamsuddin 00:01:37] Carpenter. Gregory, well Shamsuddin, thanks for joining me.

Gregory: Thank you for having me, Eddie.

Eddie Conway: Okay. First, kind of like you were in Jessup yourself. I mean, what’s the deal? MCI-J has so many cases, it’s unimaginable. Why do you think that’s happening? And just so, by comparison, there’s 3,000 prisoners up in Cumberland, Maryland. They have like one case. There’s over 4,000 prisoners in Eastern Shore. They have like two cases. Hagerstown have three or four cases with 5,000 prisoners. Jessup, which has about 3,000… That Jessup region has about 3,000 prisoners it’s self, but it’s got 350 cases. Can you talk about that a little bit and MCI-J and the culture there?

Gregory: Well, I mean, that’s a very interesting diagnosis in a lot of ways, but one of the things that we learned is that they’re not really providing people [inaudible 00:02:59] there with proper cleaning supplies and those types of things. And even just the living conditions are not as well as they could be. So that’s one of those things. And then all it takes is just one person to show up and then it begins to kind of snowball from there. But we had got some reports about them just mishandling the situation and the individuals there. That’s one of those real reasons I think for the rise in numbers there.

Eddie Conway: You know, what concerns me… I’ve spent years in the Jessup region myself, as well as years in Hagerstown and unfortunately, sometime in Cumberland. What strikes me is that the jails in the regions with the least amount of cases are all jails in white communities. Cumberland is a pretty much all white community. Hagerstown is pretty much all white community. Eastern Shore, ECI is all white community. But now Jessup is a black community. And so up in these other regions, apparently they’re given out face masks, hand sanitizers, gloves, social distancing, et cetera, et cetera. Why is that not happening in Jessup? Is that the Department of Correction? Or is that management in the Jessup region?

Gregory: Well, always the buck stops at the top, you know? However, boots on the ground, it’s a management problem because the people who are tasked with making sure certain things are in place and following through with are not doing it. I mean, for whatever reasons they are, it may be just the whole orientation about the system itself. And a lot of times, because we know that the officers, et cetera, they now have masks and shields, all these kinds of things that in some ways can protect them. But by and large, it’s just the whole application of the policies and the processes that have been put in place and how effective they are in carrying them out. And I think again, even though the buck stops at the top, it’s boots on the ground who creates the weakness in the process.

Eddie Conway: Is there any idea of the number of people that’s been released that… At some point early, on there was put on Hogan, Governor Hogan that is, to release at risk prisoners, age prisoners, et cetera. I understand only a few has been released. Do you have any idea how many prisoners have been released? Or what’s the holdup for releasing all of them?

Gregory: Well, I don’t know exact numbers. Like you said, I know that there has been several released just throughout the system, both on pre-trial and the convicted individuals, but like any new processes it’s just bureaucracy. And it’s just that paperwork is sitting on somebody’s desk or somebody has failed to follow through with a phone call just to make the process complete. And again, it becomes a part of the human inconsistency that we deal with when we deal with any situation. However, you think that because of the seriousness of this pandemic, that they would be a little bit more progressive in addressing and allowing those people who have been qualified or met the requirements to be released, to be released and be done with it.

Eddie Conway: Since all these cases apparently are happening in MCI-J, which is the Maryland Correctional Institute in Jessup, what can the public do? Especially those people that has loved ones or friends or family members, is there something the public can do to put a spotlight on this particular place? It’s ground zero. It’s a hotspot. And it’s the only spot that seems to be just exploding with the amount of contagions. What can the public do?

Gregory: That’s a very, very interesting and timely question, I think, because in light of… I mean clearly with social media, we are seeing stuff instantly that happens around the world now. I think that even though visits are not happening, but loved ones and concerned people can reach out to the politicians in their local area and the areas in which the Jessup region is located, and put pressure on politicians. Because even though we just had a series of elections in Baltimore City… Well, primaries I should say. So they just identified a new Mayor. We just identified a new City Council President. We just identified a new Comptroller. And we’ve identified some other new councilmatic district people, as well as those who are incumbent.

And I think that these people need to understand, one, that yeah individuals who may have committed crime and they have been sentenced according to the structures that are in place. However, we shouldn’t allow individuals to just be sitting ducks. And I’m saying all that to say is that use social media, you have these platforms, you have these individuals who follow you, to get them to call the Department of Corrections Headquarters. Call your local councilmatic person. Call your Congressman. Again, that’s another one, just add a new Congressman installed.

And so call these people. Put them to work. They wanted to be representatives of the people, put them to work. It may not be the sweetest tasting opportunity, but it’s an opportunity nonetheless. And especially when we have identified… When I say “we”, the structure has identified individuals who are high risk and we know that you have a large number of individuals in the penal system, and in the Jessup region in particular, who fall into that category, one, of age, two, of health. And so these individuals should be focused on clearly. And then their loved ones, if they still have loved one that exists, to knock on the doors, make the phone calls, send the letters, do whatever it is they can do to make the people aware. And the people meaning the power structure, the people who make the decisions, the people who can say, “let them go” and they’re let go.

And then make sure that as you’re going to do this, just have a support network so that these individuals, once they come home, they’re not left to chance. They are not put in a more vulnerable situation. So I think that just that… And I think that’s a small ask, although it will ring loud, it’s a small ask. That’s all it takes is a couple of minutes to pick up the phone, a couple of minutes to send an email. And then if you don’t know what to say, organizations like Out For Justice, you can reach out to them. And there are other organizations, even Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. I mean, they’ll give you ideas about what to say in a phone conversation or in an email or in a text or just if you want to set up a social platform and you’re going to go live.

It doesn’t have to be a long piece. It’s just some things that you want them to know, that our loved ones are in a vulnerable situation. Those that are eligible to come home, release them. We will receive them, but we need you to act. And so that’s, I think, what the public can do just right now.

Eddie Conway: All right. So I think we’ll make an effort to add the Secretary of Public Safety’s email, phone number, and maybe Out For Justice and information also. And I’m thinking that the easiest and the best acts might be to say, “Everybody needs to have mass. Everybody needs to have sanitizing stuff. Everybody needs to be practicing… They need to practice safe distancing. Those things apparently are happening in other jails, why are they not happening in MCI-J?” And I think the public and loved ones and friends need to ask that question of the Secretary of Public Safety.

And I think we need to revisit this again, probably in another week, because those numbers seem to be going up. So if you could keep an eye on it and we could get back and look at it again in a week or so, that would be helpful. Can you do that?

Gregory: Absolutely. I would make it a point. In fact, I will get on top of that as soon as we conclude what we are doing so that we can put some things in motion. But you’re right. Just making sure that the whole… But that’s the other part of it, one of the conversations that I heard from inside was that that’s not happening and that should happen. So those things you just mentioned, it should be reinforced and mandated basically.

Eddie Conway: Okay. So thanks for joining me, Shamsuddin.

Gregory: I appreciate you asking me to be a part of it, Eddie. Thank you.

Eddie Conway: Okay. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars.

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.