Advocates call on states to release more inmates amid pandemic

Advocates call on states to release more inmates amid pandemic
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Advocacy groups and medical experts said Wednesday that governors should release more low-level criminals to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The public health benefits, they argued, extend far beyond prison walls.

Prisons have been a hotbed of coronavirus outbreaks since social distancing is nearly impossible given the number of shared cells and communal spaces. There’s also a severe lack of masks and gloves for inmates.

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Infected prisoners, in turn, can spread the virus to correctional facility staff and any visitors.

“You cannot defeat a plague or a pandemic outside of prisons if you let it run free inside the prisons, which is basically what’s happening,” Van Jones, CEO of REFORM Alliance, a criminal justice advocacy group, said on a press call hosted by the organization.

Jones noted that guards, sheriffs and food service employees are constantly going in and out of the facilities, meaning the “virus goes in and out.”

To effectively reduce the spread of the deadly coronavirus, experts said the best approach is to move prisoners out of jail and into options like home confinement.

“I firmly believe that decarcerating people who are felt not to be a threat, who will be held on small bonds, that you know, these poor people, decarcerating people effectively allowed us to contain the epidemic in the jails,” Alysse Wurcel, an infectious disease expert at Tufts Medical Center in Massachusetts, said. “We are on a road to recovery in Massachusetts.”

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About 15 states have issued orders to temporarily release inmates with nonviolent or low-level offenses, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reported Wednesday that 2,267 federal inmates and 188 BOP staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus, with 58 inmate deaths. The Lompoc, Calif., corrections facility accounted for about 38 percent of the positive tests.

Attorney General William BarrBill BarrACLU calls for special prosecutor to investigate removal of protesters in front of White House First federal prisoner in 17 years executed hours after Supreme Court decision Supreme Court clears way for federal executions MORE issued a memo to the BOP in March that prioritizes home confinement in response to the pandemic when needed. To be considered, BOP staff must assess the inmate’s vulnerability to the coronavirus, level of crime committed and general conduct in prison and with other inmates.

“None of us can predict whether somebody in jail who comes home is going to commit another crime. None of us can predict, you know, if the person down the street who’s not in jail is going to commit a crime tomorrow,” Jessica Jackson, Chief Advocacy Officer of REFORM, said Wednesday.

“To some extent, we just need to look at who is inside, what are they inside for, and how can we get people out effectively so that we can follow medical advice, correctional experts advice and get people out and begin to social distance inside of our prisons and jails and keep them safe.”

Since the memo was released, the BOP has placed 2,932 inmates on home confinement. Among those released were Michael Avenatti, the celebrity attorney who represented adult film star Stormy Daniels and Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortTop Mueller prosecutor: 'We could have done more' in Russia investigation The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump turns to immigration; primary day delays expected GOP votes to give Graham broad subpoena power in Obama-era probe MORE, President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pitches Goya Foods products on Twitter Sessions defends recusal: 'I leave elected office with my integrity intact' Former White House physician Ronny Jackson wins Texas runoff MORE’s former campaign chairman.

The most recent large-scale release was in Elkton, Ohio, a federal corrections facility. The release came after a federal judge ordered 837 inmates to home confinement.

“What we do know is that if we don’t start creating the space to socially distance inside of the jails and prisons, it's going to be a public safety issue for everybody out here,” Jackson said.