Posted on March 25, 2020

‘Disaster Waiting to Happen’: Thousands of Inmates Released as Jails and Prisons Face Coronavirus Threat

Kimberly Kindy et al., Washington Post, March 25, 2020

Amid fears that the coronavirus will carve a deadly path through prisons and jails, counties and states are releasing thousands of inmates — New Jersey alone began freeing hundreds of people this week — and the federal prison system is coming under intense pressure to take similar measures.

Public health and corrections officials have issued dire warnings that cramped and unsanitary conditions could turn prisons into a haven for the virus, endangering not just inmates but also corrections officers and prison health-care workers as well as their families and communities.

Criminal-justice reform advocates from across the political spectrum urged President Trump on Tuesday to use his clemency power to commute the sentences of inmates eligible for “compassionate release” and others who could be at risk, particularly the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.

“This is a real disaster waiting to happen,” David Patton, the executive director of he nonprofit Federal Defenders of New York, said Sunday, the day after the first federal inmate tested positive at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. “These are places that are particularly susceptible to contagion.”

Inside a county jail in Alabama on Friday, two inmates threatened to commit suicide if newly arrived Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees they feared had been exposed to the virus were not removed. According to video live-streamed on an inmate’s Facebook page, the two detainees stood on a ledge over a common area, nooses fashioned from sheets wrapped around their necks, and threatened to jump.


About 2.3 million people are incarcerated in local jails and state and federal prisons, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, an organization that opposes mass incarceration. {snip}


On Monday, 14 senators from both parties sent a letter to the Justice Department, which oversees the federal prison system, asking that it make full use of 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,” the lawmakers — including Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — wrote to U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr and Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal.

Advocates for criminal justice reform have been pressing the Justice Department to release more elderly and terminally ill inmates early since late 2018, when President Trump signed a law that expanded eligibility for home confinement.

The Justice Department has resisted those appeals. As recently as December, the department warned that prisoners who had committed serious crimes could be released if Congress passed a bill meant to expand the number of elderly prisoners eligible for release to home confinement.

But the immediate threat posed by the coronavirus has brought new urgency to the calls for releases.

In a news conference on Sunday, Trump said that he is considering an executive order that would free elderly nonviolent offenders from federal prison. “We have been asked about that and we’re going to take a look at it,” Trump said. “It’s a — it’s a bit of a problem. But when we talk about totally nonviolent — we’re talking about these are ‘totally nonviolent prisoners.’ We are actually looking at that, yes.”

The Justice Department in recent weeks asked Congress for discretion to release low-risk offenders to home confinement even if they don’t meet current eligibility rules, which allow inmates to spend the last 10 percent or six months of their sentence at home.

The department also asked Congress to prioritize the ordering of test kits and personal protective equipment for Bureau of Prisons employees — suggesting it is girding for a possible outbreak behind prison walls.

At the same time, the Justice Department is contemplating a scenario in which some inmates may actually remain in custody longer than they otherwise would while trials or other hearings are delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to proposals it submitted to Congress.


The bureau’s covid-19 plan, posted to its website, includes suspending social visits, limiting inmate transfers and screening newly arrived inmates for exposure risk factors and symptoms. In a letter Friday to prison leadership, a union representing correctional officers protested the continued transfer of inmates from county jails and state prisons into the federal system, saying it “poses a great risk” and that many inmates are from “hot spot” areas and could be contagious.

County and state facilities across the country are already racing to remove people from jails and prisons.

In Ohio, Cuyahoga County officials launched an early-release program two weeks ago after the county jail’s medical director identified hundreds of county prisoners with serious health conditions. The result: In a matter of days, the county jail population dropped from nearly 1,900 to less than 1,300.

“We really compacted the time frame,” said Cuyahoga County Presiding Judge Brendan J. Sheehan. In the San Francisco Bay area, Alameda County officials last week released 314 people from the local jail. In Washington County, Oregon, outside Portland, more than 120 inmates were released from the local jail, freeing up enough space for each remaining inmate to stay in their own cell.


In Racine, Wis., Sheriff Christopher Schmaling has directed the local jail to stop accepting all new prisoners except those accused of violent felonies or of misdemeanor crimes, such as domestic violence, that pose a threat to public safety.

In Iowa, the state corrections department said it will begin this week to release about 700 inmates who were already deemed eligible for release by the Iowa Board of Parole.

And in Mercer County, in far western Pennsylvania, the county jail released 60 of 308 inmates — nearly one in five — to free up two cell blocks for the quarantine of anyone exposed or infected with the coronavirus.

“We’re not putting low-level punks in jail at the moment,” said Peter C. Acker, the district attorney.


Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week that the city planned to release 40 vulnerable inmates, a number the board said was “far from sufficient.” On Tuesday night, de Blasio tweeted that he is moving to release 300 inmates immediately.