Rights advocates and Democrats holding state and federal elected offices across the United States are doubling down on demands for the release of "at-risk" inmates and more preventive measures in jails and prisons to prevent mass outbreaks of the new coronavirus, which has killed at least 473 people and infected over 35,000 nationwide as of Monday morning.
"The only measure that will meaningfully impact the spread and harm of Coronavirus in the jail-system is to depopulate—to release as many as possible to continue their cases in the community—with a focus on those at highest risk of complications."
— Dr. Jonathan Giftos
Three Democratic congressmembers from New York—Reps. Nydia Velázquez, Hakeem Jeffries, and Jerrold Nadler—joined David Patton of the Federal Defenders, Anthony Sanon of the union representing corrections officers at the Metropolitan Detention Center, correctional medical experts Dr. Brie Williams and Dr. Jonathan Giftos, and New York City Councilmember Brad Lander for a virtual press conference Sunday.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our nation's jails and prisons into ticking time bombs," said Patton during the press conference. "This is no time for business as usual. Unless federal courts and federal prosecutors take immediate and bold action to reduce our federal prison population and limit the intake of new prisoners, we will face a humanitarian crisis of enormous magnitude."
A goal of the event was to pressure the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York to halt new arrests for nonviolent charges and release from federal jails inmates who are at risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19.
With a case of COVID-19 reported at Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center, we must take measures to protect prisoners in our federal prisons.
— (((Rep. Nadler))) (@RepJerryNadler) March 22, 2020
The press conference came after House Judiciary Chair Nadler sent a pair of letters to U.S. Attorney William Barr in recent weeks asking how the Federal Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals Service is repsonding to the pandemic. In the latest letter (pdf) Thursday, Nadler and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) called for considering the release of "vulnerable" inmates, such as "persons who are pregnant, who are 50 years old and older, and who suffer from chronic illnesses like asthma, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, HIV, or other diseases that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 infection."
President Donald Trump said Sunday that his administration was weighing the release of some incarcerated people following the first known COVID-19 case involving an inmate—a man at Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. California officials announced Sunday night that an inmate at California State Prison in Los Angeles County has also tested positive for the virus, after five cases among staff at three other state facilities.
Corrections experts and rights advocates have warned for weeks that, as Maria Morris of the ACLU wrote earlier this month, "prison and jail populations are extremely vulnerable to a contagious illness like COVID-19" because "conditions in correctional facilities are highly conducive to it spreading" and many inmates "are in relatively poor health and suffer from serious chronic conditions due to lack of access to healthcare in the community, or abysmal healthcare in the correctional system."
As COVID-19 outbreaks unfold within prisons and jails, officials should not use solitary confinement as part of the response. "When incarcerated people contract COVID-19, they need healthcare, not punishment.” https://t.co/l5oEX0vpcd
— The Appeal (@theappeal) March 23, 2020
Williams is a University of California San Francisco professor of medicine who focuses on healthcare in correctional settings, particularly for the elderly and chronically ill. "The possibility for accelerated transmission and poor health outcomes of COVID-19 in prisons and jails is extraordinarily high," she warned. "Coordinated, preemptive, thoughtful, and decisive action around decreasing the population in prisons and jails with public health at its center will save lives in prisons, jails, and in our communities. Business as usual will not."
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Noting that first known COVID-19 case involved an inmate in her district, Congresswoman Velázquez called for "rapid, proactive department-wide steps" to protect inmates and staff in correctional facilities, including the "compassionate release of incarcerated people who are elderly or have underlying health conditions, and who pose no risk to public safety."
"Unprecedented times call for rethinking the normal way of doing things, and in this case, it means releasing people who pose little risk to their communities for the sake of public health and the dignity of people who are incarcerated."
—Amol Sinha, ACLU-NJ
Velázquez also urged federal prisons and jails "to implement streamlined procedures to release individuals who have not been convicted of any crimes and are awaiting trial in prison or jail" and pressed the U.S. Attorneys' Offices to "exercise maximum restraint in terms of bringing additional individuals into the court and jail system."
As Giftos, former medical director of Correctional Health Services at Rikers Island, put it: "Jails simply cannot protect patients and staff from a viral pandemic affecting the city." Giftos, now the medical director at Project Renewal, which treats NYC's homeless population, added that "the only measure that will meaningfully impact the spread and harm of coronavirus in the jail-system is to depopulate—to release as many as possible to continue their cases in the community—with a focus on those at highest risk of complications."
Some courts and states have moved to prevent the spread of the virus in correctional settings. Cuyahoga County Court in Ohio ordered the release of certain inmates from the county jail earlier this month and the New Jersey Supreme Court on Sunday approved an agreement (pdf) among the state attorney general's office, county prosecutor's association, the public defender's office, and state's ACLU chapter to release up to 1,000 people in county jails beginning Tuesday.
"Unprecedented times call for rethinking the normal way of doing things, and in this case, it means releasing people who pose little risk to their communities for the sake of public health and the dignity of people who are incarcerated," ACLU-NJ executive director Amol Sinha said in a statement. "This is truly a landmark agreement, and one that should be held up for all states dealing with the current public health crisis."
Unprecedented times call for rethinking normal ways of doing things.
Now, that means releasing people who pose little risk to their communities, recognizing the public health need and the dignity of people who are incarcerated.
We're proud of NJ and proud to have played a role. https://t.co/lcjX3yTxZe
— ACLU of New Jersey (@ACLUNJ) March 23, 2020
After a Sunday announcement that a correctional officer at Cook County Jail in Chicago tested positive for COVID-19, Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli was scheduled to present an emergency petition Monday demanding the release of "vulnerable" detainees, according to the local ABC News affiliate. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that "several" people deemed "highly vulnerable" to the coronavirus were released from the facility last week.
Local faith leaders planned a socially distanced prayer vigil outside the Cook County Jail for Monday morning ahead of the hearing. Rev. Rachel Birkhahn-Rommelfanger of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church explained in a statement from the Chicago Community Bond Fund that "our faith calls us to advocate for the release of people incarcerated in the jail whose lives are at risk because of COVID-19. We are in an unprecedented crisis that calls for unprecedented action."