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Thousands of Inmates Being Released Because of Coronavirus Threat

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Thousands of Inmates Being Released Because of Coronavirus Threat

2020-03-26 22:51:30

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Aerial view of Riker's Island and Jail (Image source: Tim Rodenberg via Wikimedia Commons)

There is an area of the country's population that does not want to be forgotten in the attempt to avoid the coronavirus pandemic. Our prison system has people packed in tightly, meaning the virus could fly through the jails and prisons very quickly, infecting many. Because of that, some inmates have already been released to keep them safe, and pressure is now on the federal prison system to do the same.

We've heard plenty the past few weeks about social distancing, as well as unsanitary conditions, and just based on that knowledge, it's clear prisons and jails aren't a safe place for the inmates or those who work there. 

A bipartisan group of advocates for criminal-justice reform asked Donald Trump on Tuesday to use his clemency power to commute the sentences of inmates who are eligible for "compassionate release," as well as those who could be at risk, such as the elderly and those with medical conditions.

"This is a real disaster waiting to happen," said the executive director of the nonprofit Federal Defenders of New York, Dave Patton, on Saturday. That same day a federal inmate tested positive at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. "These are places that are particularly susceptible to contagion." 

Last Friday, two inmates inside an Alabama county jail threatened to commit suicide if three detainees from Immigration and Customs Enforcement who had just arrived were not removed. The detainees had mentioned being transported along with a man who was wearing a mask and was visibly ill. The two inmates were standing on a ledge with nooses made from sheets wrapped around their necks and were threatening to jump.

The incident was live-streamed on another inmate's Facebook page. "We're not having no more people come in here with that symptom," said another inmate in the video. "We're not trying to put no more lives at risk." 

The standoff ended hours after it started when guards moved the ICE detainees to a different unit in the Etowah County Detention Center in northern Alabama, according to inmates.

78-year-old Ahn Do, a former doctor, claims to have coronary artery disease, hypertension, and diabetes. "We are living three feet apart, in bunk beds, like a dormitory," he said from the low-security federal prison in Seagoville, Texas, where he is incarcerated. 

Hi attorney, Zachary Newland, filed a request last December for Do to get an early release. His wife has Alzheimer's disease, and Do wants to be released to help take care of her. "He is not going to survive if he gets infected," added Newland.

A bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to the Justice Department on Monday. The department oversees the federal prison system. The letter asked if the DOJ would use its power to release elderly, terminally ill, and low-risk inmates to home confinement. 

"We write to express our serious concern for the health and well-being of federal prison staff and inmates in Federal custody, especially those who are most vulnerable to infection, and to urge you to take necessary steps to protect them," wrote the group that includes Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA).

The DOJ has been resisting appeals. Last December it was warned that prisoners who'd committed serious crimes could be released if Congress passed a bill to expand the number of elderly prisoners who are eligible for home confinement release. 

Trump said on Sunday in a news conference that he's considering an executive order that would free elderly non-violent inmates. "We have been asked about that, and we're going to take a look at it," he said. "It's a — it's a bit of a problem. But when we talk about totally non-violent — we're talking about these are 'totally non-violent prisoners.' We are actually looking at that, yes."

Recently, the DOJ asked Congress for discretion to release low-risk inmates to home confinement, regardless of whether they meet eligibility rules. The rules currently allow offenders to spend the last 10 percent or six months of their sentences in home confinement. 

Congress also asked the DOJ to prioritize ordering test kits and personal protective equipment for employees of the Bureau of Prisons. The DOJ, meanwhile, is considering what will happen if some inmates remain in custody longer than they would otherwise because their trials or hearings will be delayed due to the pandemic, according to proposals submitted to Congress.

 While not commenting on specific questions about an early release for inmates, a department spokesman said in a statement, "We are confident in the Bureau of Prisons robust efforts to keep correctional workers and the inmate population safe and healthy, and that remains our top priority." The statement also mentioned that "there is presently no provision in federal law to allow for reducing the sentence of an offender, absent a judicial order." 

Posted to the department's website is its COVID-19 plan. This includes suspending social visits, limiting inmate transfers, and screening new arrivals for risk factors and symptoms of coronavirus exposure. A correctional officers union, in a letter last Friday, protested the transfer of inmates from county and state prisons into the federal system. The union noted that it "poses a great risk" to transfer them and that many are from "hot spot" areas and could be contagious.

Last week Alameda County officials in the San Francisco Bay area released 314 people from the local jail. In Washington County, Oregon, more than 120 were released from the local jail. This allowed remaining inmates to not have to share a cell. 

Sheriff Christopher Schmaling in Racine, Wisconsin, has told the local jail to stop accepting new prisoners unless they are accused of violent crimes or misdemeanors and pose a threat to public safety. The state corrections department in Iowa said it will start releasing about 700 inmates who were deemed eligible. In Mercer County, Pennsylvania, 60 inmates were released to free up two cell blocks so that they can be used for quarantine.

"A storm is coming," tweeted the chief medical officer, Ross MacDonald, for New York's Correctional Health Services. This includes Rikers Island. "We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can." 

Last week one inmate and one corrections officer in the city jail system tested positive for coronavirus. The numbers increased to 21 inmates and 17 employees from Wednesday to Saturday. By Tuesday the numbers were 52 inmates and 30 employees.

Mayor Bill De Blasio announced that the city planned to release 40 vulnerable inmates, and by Tuesday that number increased to 300. 900 people in the city's jails are over 50 years old. 200 of them are in for technical parole violations. More than 500 people are serving sentences of less than a year for low-level offenses. 

The Correction Officers' Benevolent Association union for officers at Rikers opposes the early release. The union is asking for more sanitizer, gloves, and specialized face masks.

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