Women In Prisons Say They’re Being Punished For Speaking Out About COVID-19 Risks
Women say they’re being punished for contacting people outside about their living conditions. Activists are planning an action May 23 at Jessup Correctional Facility in response.
This is a rough transcript. It will be updated shortly
Eddie Conway :Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. I’m Eddie Conway coming to youfrom Baltimore for The Real News Network. We have been looking at theCOVID–19 impact on prisoners around the country. We want to focus for aminute on what’s happening here in Maryland. There’s been reports that… the lastofficial report we got was that there was 50 some cases in the men’s prison andover 30 some cases in the women’s prison. So to kind of help us get anunderstanding of what’s happening in this state, we are joined by Monica Cooperand Nicole Hanson, and they both lead organizations as part of a larger coalitionthat’s addressing the issue of COVID-19 in the prison system. Thanks for joiningme, Monica and Nicole.
Nicole Hanson:Thanks for having me.
Monica Cooper:Thanks for having me.
Eddie Conway :Give me an overview of what’s happening in the prison systems now. This is likein May. So what’s the latest in terms of the numbers and in terms of status?Nicole, can you kind of bring us up to date with that?
Nicole Hanson:To be honest with you, Eddie, in terms of the numbers we’re getting what theDepartment is putting out, right? But we know those numbers cannot be right.We know that there is no testing happening, especially in the women’s facilities,both local and state. So we just don’t understand how any numbers, any accuratenumbers could come out if there is no testing happening in either the women’slocal jails around the state and specifically in the women’s state institution, whichis MCIW, which is the Maryland’s only women’s prison.
Unfortunately, all we know is that we get reports every day that women are showing signs,they’re showing symptoms, and we know that the state institutions are thensending our women into what they’re calling an infirmary. We know that thoseinfirmaries are not equipped with updated medical equipment or even updatedmedical staff. We know that they’re a infirmary. And the whole institution ingeneral does not have medical personnel who are equipped to deal with such apandemic.
And so when you ask me for numbers, all we can do is use what we call participatory researchand just report that. Every day, women are calling saying, “My bunk buddy justwent to the infirmary. My bunk buddy wasn’t tested. I wasn’t tested.” We knowthat at this moment in the women’s state prison, they’re not even allowed to callout. So we can’t even get updated information about who even went out. Weknow that the only time that a woman is testing where they can account for anynumber is once they have to leave the institution. And the only way that ourwomen can even leave the institution is if they’ve already shown all three signs ofCOVID and that their symptoms have gotten so worse that the Department isafraid, and so they call 911. They’re not even using the normal protocols, which acorrectional officer would then drive somebody to the hospital. They are refusingto even be close to our women at this moment.
So those numbers are false because we know that no testing is happening in our institutions. Sowe don’t have the updated numbers that we would like. All we have is womencalling us every day. I think we get about five calls a day. I know at least I alonefrom the local women’s detention center, I get about 15 to 25 calls a day from thewomen saying, “Somebody in here is infected with COVID. They’re not givingus the proper masks or gloves, and they’re just cramming us together and doingnothing.” So that’s all we have.
Eddie Conway :Monica, you want to add something to that? One of the things that strikes meabout this is, because we are having problems finding those numbers also, iswho’s responsible for releasing those numbers and who can hold themaccountable to demand numbers? Monica, you want to first, you want to jump inand then either one of you all can address the responsibility angle?
Monica Cooper:Yeah. I would think that the Secretary Green, who is Rob Green, who’s theSecretary of Corrections, would be the person who would be mainly heldresponsible for what those individual institutions do under his watch. Then if youwant to go up the chain even higher, it would be Governor Hogan, becauseGovernor Hogan has executive office and the Department of Corrections andPublic Safety falls under his purview. So the highest on the chain I believe wouldbe Governor Hogan, and then you would go to Rob Green, then you go to thenext level, the individual wardens of their institution.
A lot of them are given leeway to try to address this COVID in a way in which they see fit. If ainstitution doesn’t have a correctional staff, they can say, “Well because we areshort on staff, we’re not going to give you showers or because we’re short onstaff, we’re not going to do these things.”
But I had mentioned before, and this is not a knock on the unions at all, actually or anyrepresentative of the union, but one of the things that I mentioned, one of theissues is that they are short on staff and when you have a crisis or an emergency,no correctional staff should be able to take a day off because we need all handson deck. Everybody is fearful, full of anxiety, the correctional staff may havefamily members and loved ones at home and children that they care for, andelderly persons they care for and the like. The people who are incarcerated havefamily members, friends and loved ones that also care about them and is full ofanxiety. But I do know that that is a part of the issue, is the correctional staffing.
If I can, I’m reminded that during the Freddie Gray uprising, no officer was able to take a vacationday, any type of leave. All hands was on deck. And I believe that’s one of thethings that have to happen in corrections. Yeah, as Nicole stated, they arerefusing to take women out unless they half dead, which is, it’s wrong. But interms of who do you think that we can get to to make them spit that data out, thenthose are the people who, in my mind, that you need to get to or call to say thatwe want transparency. We want to actually see the numbers, because as Nicolesaid, if they were doing testing, we would see that the numbers are far higher.
We shouldn’t have to know about the numbers once somebody dies or once somebody is so severethat they are in a hospital. It’s clear that these women that they continue to put…I’m going to speak particularly about the women, but it’s clear that men andwomen that they’re putting in isolation should have been transferred to hospital.But instead what they’re doing is when you show any signs, they throw you inisolation and leave you there. They peek on you and if by some chance you looklike you’re half dead, then they’ll call 911, but when you start to show signs,testing is not even something that they are considering, honestly.
Eddie Conway :Nicole, because like I mentioned at the beginning, both organizations that you allrepresent are part of a larger coalition. And I believe the ACLU is involved inthat. Nicole, are they in the position to actually call Green and get the actualnumbers and keep a update? Is anybody pressing him to do that?
Nicole Hanson:The people who are in the best position to get those numbers from Green are ourstate–elected officials. This morning, they had a briefing today, right? And wewere told that some serious questions was asked at that briefing, but what we’regoing to continue to do is get the information, the participatory information thatwe’re getting from the institutions to our judiciary committee. Because what isapparent is that on Thursdays, the Department of Corrections meet with theJudiciary Committee on a regular basis.
What we’re going to do is make sure that we are connecting with the elected officials, our allies,on that committee, getting them the real live information that we’re getting fromthe institutions. I believe that they are the ones who are in the best position to askSecretary Green for real data.
But I will remind you, Mr. Conway, that the Department of Corrections in Maryland has a realhistory of not reporting the real number. This is nothing new for the Departmentof Corrections. They put together a fancy PowerPoint slide and they present it tothe elected officials. The elected officials will ask them questions and they are notheld accountable. The Department of Corrections for decades has been allowedto not be accountable for the individuals in their institutions and what ishappening in their institutions.
So I think this is the time to continue to push on our state–elected officials, specifically for theones who sit on the judiciary and the Judicial Proceedings Committee in theSenate and force them to hold the Department accountable and to tell them whatthey’re doing. We’re not talking about fancy PowerPoints or colorful graphs. Wewant real numbers. We want real data, especially on what’s happening to ourwomen. Because, the Department of Corrections, in many ways, could get scaredof the men. They’re strong, physically, in build. Mentally, the men will sticktogether, and the men will do what it takes to get what they want.
The women are not as physically capable or mentally. It’s hard for women, you know what Imean? So the way that men will stand up inside a institution is not the same waythat women will stand up in a institution. It happened to Dorsey Run. DorseyRun, the men refuse to allow them to bring in any more people in their dorm thatwas from another dorm that had signs of COVID. Those men stood up. Theystood in front of their [inaudible 00:12:26] and they refused to allow thosecorrections officers to usher in any more of incarcerated citizens.
That’s not the same in the women’s institution. Right? A light really needs to be shined on what ishappening in the women’s institution because they’re not able to protectthemselves in a way in which the men are, right? Our women are being held for24–hour lockdown. At one point, it was 23 and one. Now, it’s 24–hour lockdown.Monica will tell you, the women who want to call or tell what’s happening arebeing targeted by the warden. They come to their cells and threaten to take awaytheir good time if they keep reporting what’s happening.
Monica said this weeks ago. We need to see what is happening in that institution. Otherinstitutions are allowing Skype visits, right? So people can actually see theirloved ones. They can see their family members. They can feel that they’re okay.They know that they’re okay because they see them. The women are not allowedthis. They can barely call us. Their mail is being monitored.
So we are requesting that our State, the House Speaker and the Senate President do a real visit inthat women’s institution and not allow the wardens to lockdown the institutionand just walk them through, but make her, take them to the infirmary, take themto the solitary unit and talk to our women to find out what is actually happeningbehind those walls.
Eddie Conway :Let me do a followup… Okay. Go ahead.
Nicole Hanson:The last thing I will say is the Governor issued a order for the nursing home, tomake sure that nursing homes have testing, right? Our prisons are similar to thestructure of a nursing home. You have many people who are over the age of 60.The close quarters are similar, people living right next to each other. So to ordertesting to our nursing homes and not order testing to our prisons, which aresimilar, physically similar in terms of the population of the people there, it reallybothers us.
Eddie Conway :What’s the status in the local jails for women, the bail situation? How are thejudges treating people now that there’s pending trial or that kind of stuff? Do youhave any information on how women are being treated on that level in this state,in this city?
Monica Cooper:Terrible. They’re being treated terrible. I’ve been working with Nicole and OutFor Justice and fielding the calls for them, and I’m getting a pretty good ideaabout how things are functioning with the women over at detention booking. Itseems that charges that would normally be considered a petty fight between agirlfriend and associates, they are holding them with no bail. I believe that thejudges have taken a position the same as Governor Hogan where his initialposition was we feel like the people who are incarcerated and locked up rightnow, they are safer inside.
I believe that they are intentionally holding those people inside knowing that they should bereconned, out on their own recon, or at least at home on home monitor fightingtheir court cases. Yeah. And it’s repetitious. It’s the same thing, the same thing,the same thing. Some people over there for some technical VOPs, stuff thatwould normally have… they would be home on that.
[crosstalk 00:16:37], there are some judges that’s deciding that we’re going to keep them on theinside rather than allow them to go back out in the community. They’re not goingto have… A lot of these cases are not even going to be heard until August andlater on in the year, so why not allow those women to be out of that environmentwhere you lessen the chance of them catching COVID and spreading the disease?That’s one of the things that I had seen working with Nicole and Out For Justice.
Eddie Conway :Nicole, you mentioned during your last answer about women being punished forspeaking out, losing their good time credit. Explain that. What happened? Do youhave any direct information on people that should have been released, so on?
Nicole Hanson:Yeah. In the state institutions, they monitor their calls a lot, especially the womenright now. Because the warden, Warden Chippendale, she knows that she is notrunning her institution properly. She hasn’t run that institution properly in the last10 years. So she does not want her dirty laundry aired.
So the women who are calling us, right… Monica got a call from a woman and then we were toldthat the warden came straight to that woman’s cell and told her, “You better stoplying over that phone. We can hear what you’re saying.” I have a woman rightnow that we have investigated and found out that they have taken 600 good daysfrom her. Now, she’s a woman who has mental health issues. She’s always askingto see a therapist. If you talk about that you’re feeling like you want to killyourself, in the women’s institution, you got to write a letter stating that you wantto kill yourself and that is the way in which you will see somebody.
We got a woman right now that we got documentation where the warden’s information is on it,that they took 600 good days from this woman all from different little smallissues. She complained that she wanted to see a therapist. She complained thatshe wanted to see a doctor. She complained that she didn’t get her medicine. Andso what they do with our loved ones that suffer from mental health issues, theythrow them in a shoot and then they give them a ticket. Okay?
We have a similar situation where another woman was given the same infraction and they didn’teven proceed with her case and in fact, in order for her to come home, they wentinside the system and gave this other lady her good days back. But this womanthat we have, who has been sitting in jail for the last nine years on a paroleviolation, she got locked up with a first degree assault. She violated probation ona technical because her room was dirty. The judge gave her all her [inaudible00:19:59]. She has literally done almost nine year of parole violation.
She could have been home. She is one of the people who needs to be home right now, but theDepartment has taken away 600 or so good time credits from her. Right? Thereare other cases where they’re threating, “If you keep saying stuff, if you keepsaying things, you’re not going to come out correct.”
So this is what they’re doing. They’re imposing fear in our women. I haven’t gotten a piece of mailfrom MCIW since this COVID crisis started. And as your listeners may notknow, but my organization led the fight, or was a co–lead on a fight for women’sfree release. We ensured that the Department had to fund a separate brick andmortar privileged facility for women that had not been available to women forover 10 years.
So we always got constant… was getting constant communication from the women at the stateprison. And since COVID has started, I have not received one letter, Eddie, fromour women behind those walls. And so either nobody’s working in the mailroom,or they are not sending these women’s letters to us.
On a local side, though, the women can write us. They let us know what’s happening. LikeMonica said, we found that most of the women, specifically Black and Brownwomen, are given no bails for offenses that would otherwise they would be homeable to fight their case, or even the charges would be dismissed at the time oftrial.
We’re even seeing sentencing disparities at the local institution, right? You’ll have one womanbeing charged with armed robbery and carjacking and another White womanbeing charged with unlawful use of a motor vehicle. The same situation. Thewomen were taking drugs. They used the John’s car. The John gave them the car,but they took too long to go get the drugs. So the John got scared and called thepolice and said that the car was stolen. Same scenario. A White woman ischarged with a misdemeanor, unlawful use of a motor vehicle, where a Blackwoman is charged with carjacking, armed robbery and a host of other offenses.
In one degree, we know that in Baltimore, polices typically charge up for Black and Brown folksand start at the lowest that they can for White folks. But then we have to alsolook at the State’s Attorney’s Office and see… Now, when you see these cases,now, what are you going to do to ensure justice for our people?
So we have been working closely with the State’s Attorney’s Office, Free Trial, and the Office ofPublic Defender to urge them to use every tool in their tool box that they can useto get our people home. Because even though the judge gives a no bail, our state’sattorney, she has the ability to recall anyone she wants, especially those low leveloffenses and she says that that’s what she’s doing, right? She has the ability to notobject to the Office of Public Defenders or Free Trial’s recommendations forrelease. She can do that. Her line attorneys can do that.
When you think about pre–trial… And I’m not at all a proponent for home detention. Homedetention is another form of jail. It’s still putting our people in cages. Butunfortunately, this is the only option that our people are given to be free. Soinstead of judges looking at the case and saying, “Oh, this person could go homeon their own recon,” these judges are only recommending home detention. Andthese are folks that we know are indigent. Right now, not a lot of people are ableto go to work. Right? So how are these judges expecting our people to pay forhome detention and we’re hearing that you, the court may not start up untilSeptember, December, who knows?
So our loved ones are forced to have to figure out, “Do I get food or do I pay for my family to getfree?” Free Trial can also deem one eligible for the State’s free home detention,right? So if you are indigent, the Free Trial of the State, you could go on theState’s home detention. But what’s happening here locally, Eddie, is that they’renot working. It is often social workers and… We only have one woman that’sworking in Free Trial. Her name is Ms. Boone. She’s overloaded with these cases.
So when the Governor said, “Urge their release,” he should be backing that up with, one, atimeline, and two, he should be putting some money in the budget to employmore state workers like social workers, because those caseworkers are the oneswho are going to help to facilitate the release of people on the state level, right?And not just employing them, but giving them the proper medical equipment tomake them feel safe to go in those institutions. They are our loved ones, too,right? The social workers, Free Trial folks, they are our loved ones. And if theydon’t feel safe, they’re not going to come to work.
So the State needs to ensure that they got the proper medical equipment and make them feel safeto come in a institution and work, because people have been sitting in jail for fourand five weeks and the judge has already ordered them to come home. But theState has not… People are not working. They’re refusing to come to work and goto the jails to interact with our loved ones.
So we’ve been working with a group called Balt, facilitating the fees for as many people as wecan for home detention. Monica, MJP is helping us with fielding those calls, andalso providing transportation to and from the home detention office, helping ourloved ones go to and from the market, the family and friends of thoseincarcerated.
So this is a disaster. It’s a nightmare. What COVID has exposed is all of the things that we knewabout the system. You know, Eddie, you talk about it all the time, you know,about the system. I know I’m not saying anything that you don’t already know.But what COVID has really done is really opened up, just kind of lifted theblinds on the penal system and show how screwed up, how unorganized and howdysfunctional the system is. And it is really impacting our Black and Brownwomen in ways that you all can’t even imagine.
Eddie Conway :That brings me to my next question. Monica, what are the unique problems forwomen in the prison system in the local jails? Are you aware, are their pregnantwomen in there that’s at high risk? Exactly what are the risk factors and who’s atthe most risks?
Monica Cooper:May the 23rd down, we’re going to be in the Jessup area. What we’re going to dois we’re going to participate in this caravan of freedom. We want every andanybody to come down there. We have a flyer that has a list of things that wewould like to see that we know that will help the people on the inside. One, wedemand testing for everybody, the staff as well as the people inside. We demandtransparency. Women over 60 should be released. People with underlyingconditions should be released. And if you’re minimal pre–release status, youreally should be released.
So we have a whole list of demands there and that’s going to be Saturday, May 23rd at 2 PMdown in the Jessup region. I’ll make sure that you guys have that flyer so peoplewho are listening can also participate.
In terms of pregnant women, there’s always some woman or some women that are pregnant thatare behind the walls. I don’t necessarily have all those numbers. We have acolleague, Kim Haven, that we work with that work more with the pregnantpopulation. But I will say that besides women that are pregnant, some of the mostvulnerable are women like Barbara Hampton. Barbara Hampton has stage fourcancer. Barbara Hampton has had her commutation papers on Governor Hogan’sdesk for about three years.
We have [inaudible 00:29:28] been in there for 42 years, 60 years of age, just trying to recoverfrom COVID. She was so bad off that they had to rush her to the hospital, 911.She’s vulnerable. She’s been there 42 years. It’s time. We have both these elderlyand our aging, the aging population. We just had a brother that just passed awayafter being inside for 38 years. He died. He just recently died.
Eddie Conway :Yes. Parker [crosstalk 00:29:56]–
Monica Cooper:So we have…
Eddie Conway :I know. Okay.
Monica Cooper:Yeah. So we have people who are and should be deemed eligible for release. It’stime we make-
Eddie Conway :Okay. We are almost out of time here.
Nicole Hanson:Eddie, we do have a pregnant woman that’s over at the local jail. We forwardedthat information to Kim. We’ll give that to you, but we have some reports ofpregnant women.
Eddie Conway :Okay. We’ll come back and revisit this next week, because we need to follow upon this and find out what’s going on still. Okay?
Monica Cooper:Thank you.
Eddie Conway :Okay. Thank you both for joining me. Thank you for joining this episode ofRattling the Bars for The Real News Network.