When both doctors and defense attorneys requested that Ricky Nelson, a man convicted of gun possession, be granted a deferred sentence, prosecution and the judge denied the request. Nelson was exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, and was promptly taken from trial to jail in West Virginia on March 27. Nelson is just one of thousands entering the prison system and carrying the virus. With confined quarters, frequent movement and high levels of physical contact, jails and prisons create the perfect grounds for an outbreak of the coronavirus that could spread within the prison system and into surrounding communities.
The coronavirus pandemic has created an ideal time to address prison reform.
We should free the nonviolent, medically vulnerable and people near the end of their sentences from prison to reduce outbreaks and overcrowding.
The CDC released guidelines for corrections departments on curbing the virus’ spread, and many prisons are following the procedures diligently. Though jail workers are already expressing concerns, Sheriff Danny Rigel of Mississippi said, “If we have an outbreak in the jail, we’re going to be in a bind, like everyone else. This is like a big hurricane that we hope won’t get here.” But despite sanitizing surfaces, taking inmates’ temperatures and limiting visitors, prisons have already begun to see widespread outbreaks. The New York Legal Aid Society reported that 36 out of 1,000 inmates tested positive at New York’s Rikers Island prison complex. This would make the infection rate in the prison nine times higher than Manhattan, the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic.
While jails and prisons could act as a breeding ground for the virus, they also house some of the most vulnerable people in the country’s population. Dr. Barun Mathema, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Columbia University, said, “People inside jails are more likely to be immune-compromised; they may have diabetes, hypertension, mental illness, substance use problems or other chronic health issues.” This would mean that inmates are also the most likely to contract COVID-19 and die, as it adversely affects those with underlying conditions.
While the CDC has advised that in-home quarantine is most effective for stopping the spread, federal prosecutors have strongly resisted urges to release inmates or reduce jail bookings to keep inmates at home. Filings from the U.S. District Court of Connecticut show that judges contended they can not safely put prisoners on home confinement. Prosecutors have also urged to deny bail to defendants awaiting trial, like in U.S. v Marton when they argued that, “the Bureau of Prisons has dealt with infectious disease in the past” after Gileno requested bail out of concern for COVID-19. A federal prosecutor expressed skepticism about claims of virus-related illness in prisons last week, saying, “Concerns are based entirely on speculation and generalized fear.”
Despite pushback from prosecutors, the $2 trillion federal stimulus bill signed by President Trump included plans to help federal prisons control the coronavirus. The bill will provide $100 million to federal prisons to help obtain test kits, personal protective equipment, and provide additional inmate health care. The bill also authorized the Department of Justice to extend the amount of time inmates can be held in home confinement, a response to criminal justice and civil rights groups who have requested the release of the most vulnerable inmates.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, prison reform was already an issue of concern in America. In 2015, 18 states reported all state prisons and most jails were over 100% capacity, with 2.3 million men and women incarcerated nationwide. Most of these people are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes and show little threat to the safety of communities.
By releasing the most medically vulnerable, we could save the lives of thousands of inmates who are vulnerable to dying from COVID-19. By freeing nonviolent offenders and those who are close to release, prison overcrowding could be reduced dramatically and the risk of spreading the virus lowered exponentially. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that about 62% of inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent crime, including drug offenses, fraud, and immigration violations. State governments like California and New York have already begun to release such inmates out of concern for COVID-19. However, the federal Department of Justice is resisting nationwide pressures to do so.
Perhaps more dangerous to our communities than freeing inmates is coronavirus, which has found refuge in prisons across the country. It is time to release inmates to flatten the curve.