The ACLU called on prisons and detention centers throughout the U.S. to release high-risk and elderly inmates on Monday and applauded an Ohio county court for ordering the release of hundreds of prisoners to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
After a special Saturday morning session, the Cuyahoga County Court in Ohio ordered the release of inmates from the county jail who were at risk for becoming very ill or dying if they contract COVID-19, the respiratory disease which has infected more than 4,100 people in the U.S. as of press time.
The court settled some cases with some people who had pled guilty to crimes and released others into the community on house arrest.
"The goal of this is to protect the community and the safety of the inmates," Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan told News Channel 11 in Ohio.
Calling mass incarceration "a clear public health risk," the ACLU urged other states, counties, and cities to follow Ohio's lead.
Mass incarceration is a clear public health risk.
We encourage other states to follow Ohio’s leadership. https://t.co/AYZVfYUdEb
— ACLU (@ACLU) March 16, 2020
Earlier this month, Iranian officials released 70,000 inmates from prisons to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 in the country's criminal justice system.
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Advocates for the release of prison populations say that overcrowding in U.S. prisons and immigration detention centers as well as the poor conditions in the facilities make outbreaks increasingly likely, as the disease continues to spread.
On Monday, the ACLU joined with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) in suing ICE on behalf of immigrations detained at Tacoma Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, near the epicenter of the first COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.
BREAKING: We’re suing a Seattle-area ICE detention center for the immediate release of individuals who face heightened risk of illness or death because of COVID-19.
As public health experts have repeatedly warned, waiting to react once the virus takes hold will be too late.
— ACLU (@ACLU) March 16, 2020
"Immigrant detention centers are institutions that uniquely heighten the danger of disease transmission," Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said in a statement. "In normal circumstances, ICE has proven time and again that it is unable to protect the health and safety of detained people. These are not normal circumstances, and the heightened risk of serious harm to people in detention from COVID-19 is clear."
The agency must be proactive in releasing inmates who are most likely to become seriously ill if they contract the disease, the groups said, including those with compromised immune systems, heart disease, and lung disease.
"If it waits to react to worst case scenarios once they take hold," Matt Adams, legal director for NWIRP, said of ICE, "it will already be too late."