Maryland’s 2019 General Assembly session is still a few weeks away, but legal professionals as well as advocates of justice-related reforms in the state are already looking ahead to the upcoming session.
The 2018 session proved successful for efforts to improve conditions of confinement for women in Maryland jails and prisons. In 2019, advocates will seek to continue pushing for improvements, according to Diana Philip, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland.
NARAL is part of the Reproductive Justice Inside coalition, which in 2018 successfully introduced and lobbied for two bills related to women’s health in prisons. One bill requires prisons, jails and detention centers to create policies stating they will provide women with adequate supplies of menstrual health products. RJI research found formerly incarcerated women regularly reported a lack of menstrual pads and tampons in correctional centers.
The other bill requires facilities to have policies in place for treating incarcerated women who are pregnant. RJI found that many local jails in the state lacked policies for handling situations in which women in their custody are pregnant.
Next year, RJI hopes to change how pregnant women are held in prisons and jails, Philip said.
“As we’re looking at the implementation of the two laws that went into effect Oct. 1, we’re also looking at a prohibition on the use of involuntary segregation of pregnant and post-pregnant individuals who are incarcerated in Maryland,” she said. “We’re finding that pregnant people are being placed in isolation or restrictive housing. It’s being seen as a medical condition that needs protection rather than a medical event.”
A recent report from Disability Rights Maryland recommended the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services change its policy requiring all pregnant women to be placed in the infirmary. Confinement in the infirmary “qualifies as solitary confinement,” the report states. Women are allowed 60 to 90 minutes a day for recreation, which typically means walking through the hallways.
The result is a lack of stimulation, both physical and social, as well as a lack of adequate food and other kinds of support, Philip said.
“They think they are being punished,” she said of pregnant women in prison. “They really feel they’re separated from regular staff. If they need the attention of someone, it might be harder to get.”
Julie Magers, the Frederick County-based leader of the Maryland Prisoner Rights Coalition, is not sure what bills her organization will be directly putting forward in 2019. Still, the MPRC plans to sign on in support of several bills and focus their advocacy initiatives around health care in prison.
MPRC has found a lack of adequate resources for responding to medical emergencies, Magers said.
MPRC has heard reports of delayed responses to medical emergencies in state prisons since the the hospitalization of Roxbury Correctional Institution inmate Brian Jones in August, Magers said. Jones experienced an asthma attack in his cell, and his family said he received no medical assistance for two hours, according to The Herald-Mail.
“We had multiple reports of overdoses, and heart attacks that were not responded to in a timely manner since then,” she said.
The DPSCS issued a statement after Jones’ hospitalization stating that corrections officers called EMS for Jones within two minutes of being alerted to his condition.
MPRC also plans to advocate for better diagnosis and reporting of incarcerated people with serious mental illness. Many problems incarcerated people face stem from a failure to properly identify mental health problems, Magers said.
The organization plans to pursue remedies through advocacy at the administrative level, Magers said, but their efforts could be directed to the Legislature in the future. The MPRC does plan to put its support behind bills suggested by other organizations, including efforts to get medically assisted treatment for substance use disorders into more local jails and restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles.
The latter is a priority in 2019 for the ACLU of Maryland, according to Public Policy Director Toni Holness. Holness points to DPSCS’ 2016 report on its use of restrictive housing, which shows that nine inmates aged 17 and younger were put in segregation, as indicative of a small but important issue.
“It may sound small, but it’s a really inhumane practice that causes lasting damage,” Holness said. “It is high time we make some progress on this issue. We’re starting where the damage is most severe, with one of the populations we believe are most vulnerable.”
In 2019, the ACLU of Maryland also plans to join other organization advocating for the creation of standalone re-entry services for women leaving state prison, of which Holness said there are none.
“There are about a dozen services for men,” she said. “Women have no stand-alone services to help them re-enter society in a way that is productive. We want to see Maryland invest in women.”
Richard Montgomery III, legislative relations director for the Maryland State Bar Association, said there seems to be interest in juvenile justice reform in the 2019 session. Montgomery, who is not an advocate, said he expects there will be efforts to reform Maryland’s juvenile justice system away from the tough-on-crime approach initiated in the 1990s.
With the successes so far of the Justice Reinvestment Initiatives in the adult justice system, Montgomery said, Maryland could start to see efforts to extend similar reforms to the juvenile jurisdiction.
“I get the sense they are trying to merge the two initiatives, justice reinvestment with a more thoughtful comprehensive approach to juveniles,” Montgomery said.
The 2018 session saw the introduction of many bills that didn’t make it out of committee, including legislation pertaining to restrictive housing.
The 2019 session could be more efficient, at least as far as the House Judiciary Committee is concerned, Montgomery said. Delegate Luke Clippinger, a Baltimore prosecutor who has been named chair of the Judiciary Committee, has indicated his intent to restore the committee’s subcommittee system.
“The judiciary committee has so many bills,” Montgomery said. “Having a formalized subcommittee system is more efficient in terms of bringing bills to voting sessions. It allows stakeholders, generally, greater access to committee members.”
With many new faces on the House Judiciary Committee in 2019, Philip said she expects a lot of the session to be spent on educating and networking with incoming delegates. Still, she said she is optimistic about their efforts at a ban on restrictive housing for pregnant women.
“I think the reaction that I hear from legislators and advocates and the family members of these people is they just don’t understand why it’s being used,” she said.
Holness is hopeful the General Assembly will follow the example of the federal government, which recently passed the First Step Act. The law is a bipartisan effort to reform decades-old federal “tough-on-crime” laws such as stiff mandatory minimum sentences.
“[Justice reform] is bipartisan on the federal level and has been bipartisan at the state level,” Holness said. “It’s a public safety issue, but it’s also about fairness.”