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Jails Release Prisoners, Fearing Coronavirus Outbreak

Experts say virus could spread quickly in crowded correctional facilities, which are also banning visitors and restricting inmates’ movements

The Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio. PHOTO: JOHN MINCHILLO/ASSOCIATED PRESS

By Zusha Elinson and Deanna Paul - Wall Street Journal

March 22, 2020

Local governments across the U.S. are releasing thousands of inmates in an unprecedented effort to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in crowded jails and prisons.

Jails in California, New York, Ohio, Texas, and at least a dozen other states are sending low-level offenders and elderly or sickly inmates home early due to coronavirus fears. At other jails and prisons around the country, officials are banning visitors, restricting inmates’ movement and screening staff.

The 2.2 million people behind bars in the country, and the guards who work with them, face unique risks due to the tight spaces in crowded conditions and strained health-care systems, according to experts.

“We’re all headed for some dire consequences,” said Daniel Vasquez, a former warden of San Quentin and Soledad state prisons in California. “They’re in such close quarters—some double- and triple-celled—I think it’s going to be impossible to stop it from spreading.”

Prison staff in Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York and Washington state have tested positive for the virus, resulting in inmate quarantines. In Washington, D.C., a U.S. marshal who works in proximity to new arrestees tested positive for the virus, meaning dozens of defendants headed for jail could have been exposed. Two federal prison staffers have also tested positive.

On Saturday, the first federal inmate tested positive in a Brooklyn, N.Y., facility, according to the Bureau of Prisons. The same day, New York City’s Board of Correction, an independent oversight agency, sent a letter to city and state officials urging them to rapidly reduce the jail population, with a focus on people at highest risk of infection, pointing to more than 30 inmates and corrections employees who have tested positive for the virus.

There have been no reported major outbreaks yet, but experts fear the coronavirus could overwhelm correctional facilities, particularly because there are more inmates than ever in the older demographic that is at greater risk. The number of people 55 or older in state and federal prisons reached 164,000 in 2016, more than tripling from 1999, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“Will they have the staff, the equipment, and the service to treat people?” asked Steve J. Martin, a corrections consultant who serves as a federal monitor for the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City. “And if they don’t, are they going to send those folks out to hospitals or where they can get adequate health care?”

To prevent the virus from spreading, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests separating symptomatic individuals. In correctional facilities, however, that can be “virtually impossible,” according to Homer Venters, former chief medical officer for New York City correctional health services.

 

New York City was hit by the nation's largest coronavirus jail outbreak to date this week, with at least 38 people testing positive at the notorious Rikers Island complex and nearby facilities — more than half of them incarcerated men, the board that oversees the city's jail system said Saturday.

Many jails and prisons already need to separate numerous types of inmates, he noted, including pretrial and sentenced individuals, men and women, migrant detainees and the mentally ill.

Amy Fettig, deputy director at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said authorities should balance public safety with civil rights, such as access to libraries and recreation, as well as visits with family. “If civil rights are abrogated, it should be based on science and revisited frequently,” she said.

Some public-health officials and prisoners’ rights advocates have proposed large-scale releases of the incarcerated. In Iran, 54,000 prisoners have been temporarily released to slow the spread of the virus.

In Cleveland, more than 400 inmates have been moved out of the Cuyahoga County Jail via lowered bonds or quickly reached plea deals, resulting in release or transfer to state prison. Judges and prosecutors sought to reassure the public that the nearly 25% reduction in the county jail population didn’t mean they were releasing inmates en masse.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., arrives for a briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 12, on the coronavirus outbreak. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a huge advocate for the release of inmates during the coronavirus pandemic, told the Federal Bureau of Prisons in a letter on Thursday that "BOP should be taking reasonable steps to reduce the incarcerated population and guard against potential exposure to coronavirus."

“We’re not opening up the jail doors and letting prisoners leave,” said Brendan Sheehan, administrative judge of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. “We’re looking at lower-level nonviolent felons and we’re looking at our jail cases who have a higher medical risk.”

The goal is to keep inmates further apart and create space for quarantines if necessary, he said.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said earlier this week that he had reduced the jail population from 17,076 to 16,459 since the end of February by asking police to cite and release low-level offenders and by releasing inmates with fewer than 30 days left on their sentences. Arrests in the county—the most populous in the U.S.—have dropped to 60 a day from around 300, he said.

“Our population within the jail is a vulnerable population just by virtue of who they are and where they’re located,” Sheriff Villanueva said at a Monday press conference. “We’re protecting that population from potential exposure.”

There are no confirmed cases of the virus in Los Angeles County jails, but nine inmates are being held in isolation and 26 are under quarantine as a precaution, he said.

Meanwhile, families of inmates are bracing for the worst.

“There’s a lot of nervousness; there’s a lot of not knowing,” said Dolores Canales, co-founder of California Families Against Solitary Confinement, whose son is in jail.