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'It gets more frightening': As coronavirus surges in prisons, families of elderly inmates wait in fear

Inmates in a cell at California State Prison, Sacramento, near Folsom, CA. One inmate and five employees in the state's massive prison system have tested positive for coronavirus, leading to pressure on corrections officials to begin releasing some of California's 123,000 convicts early

By Kristine Phillips - USA TODAY

Laura Hurwitz’s father, an inmate in a low-security federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, is 79 and in frail health. He survived multiple heart attacks and several bouts with cancer – lung, prostate, throat and nasal. 

He also has severe emphysema, high blood pressure, chronic sinusitis, and lung and respiratory issues. Hurwitz said her father is highly vulnerable to dying of COVID-19 and should be moved out of the prison’s close quarters. But whether her father, who has more than three years left in his sentence for bank robbery, can get out is unclear. And Hurwitz, still waiting for answers, is in panic. 

“By some stroke of miracle, he is still alive. Clearly with the current pandemic and the level of escalating cases of the virus from the outside, I can only imagine. And it’s hard for me to let myself go there, when I let myself think about what is happening on the inside,” Hurwitz said. 

The coronavirus pandemic has forced prison officials to confront difficult questions about who get to spend the rest of their days outside prison walls. The elderly – most at risk of getting sick and dying of the virus – has been the fastest-growing population in federal and state prison systems, in part because of lengthy, mandatory sentences. Thousands are serving time for violent crimes, although advocates have argued that the chance to be released while a pandemic wreaks havoc inside prison walls should not be based solely on the crimes inmates committed in their younger years.

“People change. People age out of crime, especially violent crime. That’s a young man’s game. We can’t make this a binary-non-binary, violent-nonviolent distinction,” Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), said at a recent question-and-answer session on Facebook Live.