Experts have warned that trying to protect the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States from the novel COVID-19 coronavirus is going to be a “challenge” since jails and prisons are “fertile grounds for infectious disease.”
Now, as numbers of those infected in the prison system soar, and conditions in jails make it difficult—or even impossible—to practice social distancing and isolate inmates with symptoms, advocates and lawmakers alike are pushing for the compassionate release of prisoners, the Boston Globe reports.
Compassionate release, formally known as Medical Parole, is a process where an inmate can petition to be paroled on humanitarian or medical grounds, according to US Legal.
In 2014 in New York State, only 30 inmates had an application certified for medical parole. The parole board only granted medical parole to just 17 of those 30, according to the Vera Institute for Justice.
However, the current rate of infections regarding COVID-19 is taking the prison system to uncharted waters. With many inmates in prisons aging and suffering from poor health, it is leading advocates and lawmakers to argue that these are extenuating circumstances that must be dealt with, the Boston Globe explains.
As a step towards compassionate release, starting Tuesday morning, New Jersey will begin releasing as many as 1,000 inmates in what is being described as “the nation’s broadest effort to address the risks of the highly contagious coronavirus spreading among the incarcerated,” according to The New York Times.
Those who are being released by the state court order are inmates who have been jailed for minor or non-violent offenses, such as probation violates. Every released inmate is encouraged to remain quarantined for 14 days, The New York Times reports.
“We’re the only state in America doing this,” Gov. Philip D. Murphy said Monday during a briefing on the state’s coronavirus cases.
ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha said in a statement responding to Gov. Murphy, as quoted by Politico, first describing this as a “landmark agreement.”
“Unprecedented times call for rethinking the normal way of doing things,” Mr. Sinha said, “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.”
New Jersey has the second-highest number of total confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 2,884 individuals who have tested positive for the virus. New York state, on the other hand, is suffering from the most cases in America, with 25,665 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
With the threat of the virus rising in New York, the legislators and those with authority have yet to announce any formal plans to contain the virus in jails and prisons. Just this past weekend, the number of confirmed cases among New York prisoners and workers increased to over 38 cases, The New York Times details.
With the most recent data from The National Institute of Corrections, the New York prison population is 51,727. Out of all of those inmates, just 75 have been released, according to a statement from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio as quoted by NBC News.
Mayor de Blasio continued, saying “We have an additional 200 being evaluated right now for release who have less than 90 days left in their sentences.”
“Our focus is doing this safely and with the right supervision after release,” he concluded.
On Sunday, President Trump discussed compassionate release, saying that he was considering issuing an executive order to free older, “vulnerable” and “totally nonviolent prisoners” from federal facilities. His statement came after an inmate in the federal Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn tested positive for the coronavirus, USA Today reports.
Some law enforcement groups, as well as Attorney General William Barr, have pushed back on calls to release large numbers of prisoners, arguing it will endanger public safety.