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Prisons are releasing inmates in emergency bid to stop the spread of COVID-19 within facilities

US jails are now releasing inmates most vulnerable to infection and those who were arrested for minor crimes.

Prisons are releasing inmates in emergency bid to stop the spread of COVID-19 within facilities
Image Source: Getty Images (Representative)

While the world embraces social distancing as a new way of life amid the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, questions arise about the fate of those held within jails and prisons. Across the globe, lawmakers are being forced to take emergency measures to avoid a potentially catastrophic spread of the virus within correctional facilities since they could serve as fertile breeding grounds for COVID-19. Since the risk posed by mass confinement not only endangers inmates and corrections workers but the general public as well, US jails are now releasing inmates most vulnerable to infection and those who were arrested for minor crimes.


According to BBC, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio revealed on Wednesday that city officials will this week identify individuals who are suitable for immediate release. This will include individuals serving time for minor crimes and inmates underlying health problems who are most vulnerable to the virus. The announcement came hours after a guard and a prisoner tested positive for COVID-19 at Rikers Island prison. It also followed Iran's decision to temporarily release about 85,000 inmates in a desperate quest to curb the spread of the virus in its overstuffed and dilapidated prisons.


Meanwhile, officials announced on Tuesday that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has reduced its inmate population by 600 in the last two weeks. "Our population within our jails is a vulnerable population just by who they are, where they are located, so we're protecting that population from potential exposure," said Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva. He added that arrests in the county are also down, going from an average of 300 per weekend to only 60 in mid-March. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, also implemented similar emergency measures, releasing hundreds of prisoners due to fear of the virus running rampant within its correctional facilities.


Judges held emergency hearings through the weekend, working out plea deals and other agreements to facilitate the early release of prisoners. Meanwhile, a number of states including New York and California are now banning in-person visitors, although such a ban led to a deadly prison riot in Italy last week. Until the COVID-19 crisis is over, federal agencies will reportedly postpone most arrests and deportations. These drastic, unprecedented measures follow calls for action from activists who pointed out that prisons represent a ticking time bomb unless adequate steps are taken.


Their concerns grew stronger following the death of David Perez, a New York City Department of Correction investigator, who died on Sunday after testing positive for the virus. According to New York Magazine, Justine Olderman—the executive director of the Bronx Defenders—said that releasing prisoners is the only way to keep them safe during the pandemic. "The next best thing is to drastically reduce the number of people being held. Neither of those things are being done right now. As public defenders, what we’re actually seeing happen is the opposite, and it is terrifying," she said.


"Our biggest concern is how we’re housing people and separating people. If we’re just going to lock down our jails, are we going to be using current units or housing units or solitary units?" asked Kelsey De Avila, of Brooklyn Defender Services. "What does that look like? How will they get access to medical care? There’s only 70 beds in the contagious disease unit on Rikers Island with a population of around 5,000. Those are the questions that we need answers to."


However, the idea of releasing prisoners into the public in the midst of a pandemic has also been severely criticized by some. According to Daily Mail, the NYC Correction Officers' Benevolent Association warned that the "reckless" move puts correction officers' lives at risk. "It's very sad that we have to remind the Board of Correction that their mandate, per the city's Charter, is to advocate for the welfare of everyone in the Correction Department, not just the inmates. Their latest asinine proposal to start letting inmates out of jail who are 'high risk' to this virus, regardless of their risk to public safety, is beyond irresponsible," said the association's president, Elias Husamudeen, in a statement.


"Instead of recklessly letting inmates out, call for the city to ramp up its efforts to bring in more masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, and other vital supplies for the men and women who must also put their health at risk by showing up to work every day, providing care, custody, and control. Correction Officers' lives matter too," Husamudeen added.

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