Court Battles

Advocates warn of coronavirus threat to inmates


Legal groups across the country are fighting to protect inmates from the spread of the coronavirus, urging jails and prisons to come up with plans to mitigate the risk to their populations and even calling for the release of the most vulnerable prisoners.

There’s a growing concern about the potential risk facing inmates and the possibility that the virus could spread inside correctional facilities that house inmates that are older or have underlying health issues, factors that make people especially vulnerable to the virus.

The U.S. has the largest prison population of any country in the world, with more than 2.2 million people in jails and prisons administered by federal, state and local authorities. The often crowded conditions in the facilities also makes them susceptible to a rapid outbreak.

“They also are living in filthy conditions and often without adequate access to soap, other hygiene products, other cleaning supplies, and that exacerbates the likelihood of the spread of a contagious illness,” said Maria Morris, a staff attorney with ACLU’s National Prison Project. “And prisons particularly have a high number of people with serious chronic medical conditions.”

“It is really important that states and the federal government act quickly, because once the virus gets into these facilities, it can do terrible things to people who are sitting ducks and are more likely to suffer very severe consequences from the virus than a lot of people anticipate,” Morris added.

The ACLU this week sent letters to officials at all levels of the justice system asking that they take major precautions against the virus, limit the number of arrests during the pandemic and even consider releasing inmates who are considered vulnerable due to their age or underlying health conditions.

“Health experts agree that these populations need to be a focus in our national response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and there is an emerging and broad public consensus that supports common sense steps to achieve the goal of protecting the most vulnerable populations during this pandemic,” the civil liberties group wrote. “The urgency of deliberate and thoughtful action cannot be overstated.”

The New York Legal Aid Society on Friday filed a lawsuit seeking the release of 116 at-risk inmates in local jails, a day after Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) revealed that an inmate at Rikers Island had tested positive for the virus. The group argued that continuing to hold the inmates in conditions that pose such serious health risks is unconstitutional. As of Sunday those numbers had increased to 21 inmates and 17 corrections staffers having tested positive, according to the AP.

“This petition seeks their immediate release from jails in New York City on the grounds that continuing to hold them on bail or parole constitutes deliberate indifference to the risk of serious medical harm in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and state constitutional right to due process,” the lawsuit reads.

The group has said that it’s received multiple complaints from incarcerated clients that their corrections facilities lack basic sanitation supplies, including in many jails, hand sanitizer strong enough to eliminate germs that spread the disease.

Jails and prisons present different problems for addressing the outbreaks. Jails typically house inmates who are awaiting trial or are serving shorter sentences, meaning that their populations have high turnover rates. Prisons generally hold people who have been convicted of felonies and are serving multi-year sentences, and house more older inmates who could be at risk to the infection.

Sixty-five inmates in Washington, D.C. were placed under quarantine this week after a U.S. Marshal tested positive for coronavirus. Eighteen prisoners at a correctional facility in Wisconsin were also quarantined after a prison doctor was diagnosed with the virus.

And a prison in Washington State, which has recorded one of the worst outbreaks in the country, locked down many of its prisoners following a positive test from one of the staff members.

Christopher Blackwell, an inmate at the Washington State facility, wrote an article for Buzzfeed this week detailing the lack of cleaning supplies and precautions at the prison and the concern growing among its wards. 

“When I walk through the unit now, I cannot help but linger on the faces of the elderly prisoners, some of them who have been like father figures to us younger men, and think about how they are unlikely to survive this,” Blackwell wrote.

With courts around the country closing their operations, many police departments have taken steps to reduce the number of arrests in order to slow the flow of inmates into their jail systems and to protect officers from exposure.

In Washington, D.C., the police department announced that for many infractions it would issue court summons instead of arresting suspects and holding them until they can appear before a judge.

Police in Portland, Ore., have announced that they won’t even respond in person to many calls that aren’t life threatening, and have directed residents to report certain crimes online.

The Philadelphia Police Department ordered its officers not to make arrests for nonviolent crimes like drug offenses and prostitution, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Friday.

But advocates say it’s not enough to just slow the flood of people being admitted to the jails.

“Unless there’s a real public safety threat, we just think they ought to really figure out how to reduce the population,” said Jonathan Smith, the legal director for Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “Thirty percent of the population in jail in D.C. today is there for less than seven days. If there’s no public safety reason to keep them longer than seven days, then there’s no public safety reason to keep them there at all.

“Once it takes hold in a jail it’s going to be a real nightmare,” he added.

Tags Bill de Blasio Coronavirus Criminal justice

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