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Coronavirus behind bars: Prisoners being freed to slow spread in 'virus vectors'

Advocates warn that inmates and correctional workers are "sitting ducks" for infection.
Image: A view of the Rikers Island prison complex
A view of the Rikers Island prison complex on May 17, 2011, in New York.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

Advocates are calling for large-scale prison releases to knock back the coronavirus, as detention facilities throughout the country report positive cases among inmates and staff.

Across the United States, local and state officials have begun freeing low-level and nonviolent offenders — among them, migrants, the elderly, the infirm and those with short remaining sentences — to avoid an outbreak that the American Civil Liberties Union warned would spread "quickly and devastatingly."

"Unfortunately, we know that prisons and jails are virus vectors, and people who live and work in these institutions are virtually sitting ducks for the virus," Amy Fettig, the deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project. "All of these people are now extremely at-risk because they can't practice the social distancing that public health officials tell us is absolutely necessary to protect ourselves."

New York University's Public Safety Lab, which tracks daily jail populations, said this week that it had started to see "sharp declines" in populations at many county jails, particularly in Washington state, where the number of inmates at some facilities has been reduced by nearly 50 percent since the start of the month.

Overall, county jail populations have dropped by about 20 percent since the start of March, Anna Harvey, the Public Safety Lab's director.

"This is good news for those who are seeking to reduce jail populations to reduce disease transmission," she added, while also cautioning that several dozen jails have increased their populations.

The movement to cut jail and prison populations has been taking place across the globe, including in Iran, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and has released tens of thousands of prisoners since February, according to NBC News.

In the U.S., Attorney General William Barr announced Thursday that he was instructing the Bureau of Prisons to increase the use of home confinement for eligible federal prisoners.

"Many inmates will be safer in BOP facilities where the population is controlled and there is ready access to doctors and medical care," Barr said. "But for some eligible inmates, home confinement might be more effective in protecting their health."

However, there are signs that efforts to stop the coronavirus from spreading unchecked in detention centers may be coming too late.

At New York City's Rikers Island prison complex, there are dozens of confirmed COVID-19 cases among both staff and inmates, even as Mayor Bill de Blasio said 75 prisoners have been released and that he was working to let out "hundreds" more.

In New York City, the epicenter of the nation's coronavirus outbreak, 73 inmates in its Department of Corrections custody had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday, according to a city health department spokesperson. In addition, 58 DOC employees had tested positive, up from 37 the day before.

The risk of COVID-19 outbreaks behind bars has united Democratic and Republican senators, corrections officer unions, and prison reform advocates, who are all calling for major changes.

Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., along with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., have introduced legislation that would immediately free inmates who are pregnant, have underlying health issues, or are over age 50 into "community supervision outside of prison, unless they pose a violent threat to the community."

Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have called for using provisions in the First Step Act to release prisoners, such as the "Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program," which allows for the at-home supervised release of detainees who are ill, age 60 and up, and have completed the majority of their prison sentences.

The Associated Press reported last week on the first confirmed COVID-19 case at a federal prison in New York City and other BOP detainees and staff have since tested positive in Texas and Louisiana.

New York's Correction Officers' Benevolent Association has expressed concern about the increased risk in lockups and announced this week it had acquired 25,000 N95 masks for its members, while also calling for a dedicated COVID-19 testing center on Rikers Island.

In New York City, one of the earliest coronavirus fatalities was a Department of Corrections officer who died March 15.

In Los Angeles, Sheriff Alex Villanueva has undertaken efforts to reduce arrests and release prisoners from its jail system, the nation's largest, to avoid a potential outbreak. Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, and King County, home to Seattle, also have started to trim their jail populations.

On Tuesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order freezing the admission of new detainees to the state's 39 prisons and juvenile detention facilities, instructing that they are to "remain in county custody for the next 30 days," a period that could be extended.

And the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Montana is asking lower court judges to "release, without bond, as many prisoners as you are able, especially those being held for nonviolent offenses." New Jersey's chief justice also issued an order to spring certain inmates, which the state said it would undertake by freeing about 1,000 prisoners.

Some of the roughly 37,000 people held in immigration detention are starting to be released as well: Trans Queer Pueblo said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, had released five LGBTQ migrants on humanitarian parole, two of whom are HIV positive.

"The releases show that ICE is panicking," said Karla Bautista Chonay of Trans Queer Pueblo. "They've given such negligent medical care to migrants in detention for so long that they literally don't have the infrastructure to keep them safe from COVID-19." The group is calling for ICE to release "all detainees in Arizona, now, starting with folks who are LGBTQ+ and have chronic conditions."

Advocates like the ACLU'S Fettig say more needs to be done.

"The concerning thing is many of these systems are not working with the public health authorities in the ways they should,” Fettig said. "These places operate below most of our accountability structures, and unfortunately what COVID-19 the pandemic is showing us is that having entire sectors of your government that hold millions of people without much accountability, in a public health crisis, means that you're going to be simply unprepared."