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(Washington, D.C.) – The Maryland secretary of Public Safety and Corrections and the Chesapeake Detention Facility’s (CDF) warden have failed to properly prepare for and respond to an avoidable coronavirus outbreak at the CDF in downtown Baltimore, according to a class action lawsuit filed Saturday by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and pro bono counsel Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP.

The lawsuit was triggered by a recent uncontrolled COVID-19 outbreak at CDF and seeks urgent relief for the approximately 400 residents of the facility, more than one-third of whom have tested positive since the beginning of this year. In addition to the impact on residents, one-third of staff at CDF have tested positive in a month’s time. The lawsuit names CDF’s warden and the secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections Services as defendants.  

“What’s happening at the Chesapeake Detention Facility is unconscionable,” said John Fowler, counsel with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We’re now a year into this pandemic. Jails and prisons know how to protect against the virus, and they know how to stop an outbreak from infecting so many residents and staff. This outbreak never should have happened, and CDF has shown that another outbreak is likely.” 

The plaintiffs in this case have recounted disturbing failures to protect residents and staff alike from the virus, dating back to early in the pandemic. CDF’s lack of oversight has led to COVID-positive residents living in close quarters and intermingling with COVID-negative residents, creating unnecessary risks of exposure in the facility. Last week, CDF placed a female resident who was recently arrested into a unit occupied by COVID-positive residents, all of whom were men.   

“The outbreak at CDF is appalling, but it’s also unfortunately in line with the experience of marginalized communities throughout the pandemic,” said Pilar Whitaker, counsel for the Economic Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “COVID doesn’t impact everyone equally, and it’s about time that CDF stepped up to the plate and took responsibility for the people it houses.” 

The outbreak at the detention facility is yet another example of COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. More than 70 percent of residents in Maryland’s jails and prisons are Black, while only around 30 percent of the state’s residents are Black.

We welcome the opportunity to work with the Lawyers’ Committee to help correct this outrageous and deeply dangerous set of conditions faced by residents of CDF before anyone else contracts this dangerous illness,” said Daniel C. Schwartz, senior counsel, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP.  

CDF also has moved residents who have tested positive to a building resembling a warehouse, with inadequate heat and medical treatment. The facility also denies residents access to cleaning supplies to sanitize cells, phones, and common areas. Social distancing, meanwhile, is all but impossible, and CDF makes no effort to enforce either mask-wearing or social distancing protocols.   

Read the lawsuit here.