The COVID-19 pandemic has injected a new meaning into the phrase “public safety.” It requires not just the release of incarcerated individuals, but ensuring their release doesn’t further endanger their health and the health of the communities to which they return, writes a Washington, D.C,-based attorney who specializes in sentencing and reentry issues.
As parole dates are advanced and inmates tear shirts and socks to make masks, federal judges are weighing whether California must take larger, more drastic steps to avert the spread of COVID-19 in its teeming prisons.
The REFORM Alliance, the advocacy group founded by rappers Meek Mill and Jay-Z, will send surgical masks to New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex and other prisons in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus among inmates.
Many of the individuals released from prison or jail to prevent the spread of coronavirus could end up in crowded shelters or similar places, where they will be just as vulnerable as they were inside, warns a former inmate. He calls on authorities to provide adequate resources to community organizations that can provide them with counseling and support.
Officials acted after concerns were raised by lawmakers, corrections officers and inmates that officials weren’t being aggressive enough in their response to the pandemic. At least 28 inmates and 24 staffers had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday.
The hundreds of COVID-19 diagnoses at correctional facilities is an undercount, given a lack of testing and the virus’s rapid spread, leading to hunger strikes in immigrant detention centers and demands for more protection from prison employee unions.
Despite prisoner releases, the vast majority of America’s 2.3 million inmates live in ‘epidemiological tinderboxes,” warns Jody Lewen of the Prison University Project in a letter calling on authorities to take additional safety measures. Jails are a crucial hot zone, adds the Pew Public Safety Performance Project in a report showing that jail populations have remained unchanged despite decreases in admissions–largely because lengths of stay have increased.
Hundreds of cases are confirmed behind bars in New York, California, Michigan, Alabama and a dozen other states. Some in custody are afraid to report symptoms because they’ve seen others placed in solitary confinement for doing so.