Releasing inmates, screening staff: U.S. jails and prisons rush to limit
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[March 23, 2020]
By Peter Eisler, Ned Parker and Grant Smith
(Reuters) - The coronavirus is invading
U.S. jails and prisons, prompting inmate releases, reduced bail
requirements and other extraordinary measures as officials rush to avert
a potentially disastrous spread of the virus among crowded inmate
In New York City, where at least 29 inmates and 17 staff in the jail
system have been infected by the coronavirus, Mayor Bill de Blasio said
on Sunday 23 inmates would be released before day's end and the city
would decide within 24 hours whether to release up to 200 more.
He said inmates would be screened to identify those at risk from the
virus, which has killed more than 14,000 people across the globe,
including 415 in the United States.
Officials were still determining how many inmates ultimately should be
let out of the city’s 11 jails, who will be eligible and how they will
be supervised. “It’s very thorny,” de Blasio told a news conference.
City residents need to “have relative comfort” that people who are
released are unlikely to commit a “serious crime,” he added.
New York City’s Board of Corrections, an independent oversight body, has
called on the mayor to release around 2,000 inmates who were severely
sick, held on low-level offenses or jailed for parole violations.
"It’s the right number to make it work," board member Dr. Robert Cohen
New York City’s jail system is among relatively few that have announced
confirmed cases of the coronavirus among inmates or staff. But other
jails nationwide are moving to reduce inmate populations before it
In Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma County Jail is working with judges and
district attorneys to secure court orders for the release of inmates
held on minor misdemeanors and considered minimal security risks.
Though the jail has no confirmed coronavirus cases among its 1,500
inmates, the goal is “to get out as many people as possible, keeping in
mind the safety of the public," said spokesman Mark Myers.
Jails typically hold people for relatively short periods as they await
trial and have more flexibility to reduce populations than state or
federal prisons, whose inmates have been convicted and sentenced.
While many state prisons have announced steps to limit the spread of the
virus such as banning visitors, they generally require a court order to
release inmates. Federal prisons face similar restrictions, although
President Donald Trump said on Sunday that he would consider an
executive order to release “totally nonviolent prisoners” from those
As the virus spreads, both jails and prisons share a fundamental
problem: how to safeguard a captive population that includes large
numbers of people with underlying medical problems.
When infections take hold, “it’s a problem for the public,” said Marc
Stern, former medical director for the Washington State Department of
Corrections and a faculty member at the University of Washington’s
School of Public Health.
When inmates get sick, “it can spread outside facilities, through
officers and staff, to families and the community,” said Stern, who is
advising the National Sheriffs' Association on how jails should manage
the coronavirus outbreak.
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And because inmates are more likely to have chronic medical
conditions, such as diabetes and asthma, those who get sick “have a
higher chance of needing hospitalization, which is going to use up
hospital beds and other scarce resources for the community.”
California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported
on Saturday that at least three employees have COVID-19, the disease
caused by the coronavirus, but no inmate infections have been
Like several other state prison systems, the department is medically
screening personnel who enter its facilities. It also is requiring
14-day quarantines for all inmates arriving from county jails, it
The United States has more people behind bars than any other nation,
a total incarcerated population of nearly 2.3 million as of 2017,
including nearly 1.5 million in state and federal prisons and
another 745,000 in local jails, according to the U.S. Bureau of
Many experts see county and municipal jails as the more pressing
concern because their populations are more fluid, so they pose more
risk of transmitting the virus both in the jail and the community.
Reducing their populations not only limits the number of inmates and
staff at risk of contracting the illness, it also enhances their
ability to separate the remaining inmates, a crucial step for
containing any outbreak, said Michele Deitch, a corrections expert
at the University of Texas’ Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public
In Utah, the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office has worked with local
courts, prosecutors and public defenders to release 81 “non-violent
prisoners" with a promise to appear in court at a later date, said
Sergeant Carrie Fisher, the office’s spokeswoman.
Other jurisdictions are trying to reduce inmate populations by
stemming the influx of new arrivals.
Last week, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said the
county had taken steps since late February to reduce the jail's
population by 617 inmates. This was done by releasing inmates with
less than 30 days on their sentences and by changing bail
requirement policies used to determine which arrestees would get a
citation versus being booked into custody, he said.
The challenge is to move quickly, experts say, because most jails
haven't planned for such a fast-moving medical crisis.
“You could still get a lot of people out," said Jacob Kang-Brown, a
senior researcher at the Vera Institute of Justice, where he studies
ways to reduce incarcerated populations.
(Peter Eisler reported from Washington. Ned Parker and Grant Smith
reported from New York. Additional reporting by Linda So. Editing by
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