Congress members have urged President Donald Trump to reduce the federal prison population as a measure to curb the spread of the Chinese Communist Party virus (CCP virus), commonly known as the novel coronavirus. This comes as several states have begun releasing inmates to protect its prison and jail populations.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wrote a letter (pdf) addressed to Trump on Thursday urging him to take a number of steps to reduce the federal prison population such as commuting sentences of elderly inmates who do not pose a current and substantial safety risk, commuting sentences of medically vulnerable individuals, and establishing procedures to release individuals who are awaiting trial in prison or jail.
“Preventing the rapid spread of COVID-19 is the country’s top priority and ensuring the safety and wellbeing of people in prisons, jails, and detention facilities is a critical part of that effort,” the letter read. “As President, that duty and responsibility falls even more squarely within your purview.”
“[W]e urge you to adopt and release decarceral guidelines and use your clemency power to reduce the population of people in federal custody whose release poses no risk to public safety,” the lawmakers wrote, adding that state leaders should follow suit to reduce the spread of the CCP virus. The Epoch Times refers to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, as the CCP virus because the Chinese Communist Party’s coverup and mismanagement allowed the virus to spread throughout China and create a global pandemic.
Similarly, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) called for “low risk” inmates to be released from federal prison custody in a letter to Director of Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Michael Carvajal (pdf).
The American Civil Liberties Union has also been urging the Trump administration to reduce the federal prison population as a measure to protect those incarcerated and prison employees from the CCP virus.
The organization sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr and Carvajal on Wednesday calling on the federal government to release inmates who are 65 and older or have a chronic medical condition because they would be particularly susceptible to the virus while citing concerns of prison overcrowding and recommendations of public health professionals.
“The public health concerns presented by coronavirus in confined spaces creates an urgent need to ensure the health of those incarcerated, particularly those who are elderly and those with chronic health conditions,” the letter read.
The letter also calls for the Justice Department (DOJ) to direct the U.S. Marshals Service to release inmates in their custody who may be vulnerable to the CCP virus.
The DOJ did not immediately respond to The Epoch Times’ request for comment on the ACLU letter. The BOP declined to comment on the letter.
At least four states have begun releasing inmates from their jails in an attempt to reduce the risk of spreading the virus following reports that infections have started to appear.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has released about 600 inmates since Feb. 28, many of whom had less than 30 days left on their sentence, in order to protect the jail’s population from potential exposure of the virus, Sheriff Alex Villanueva told NBC on Monday. Similarly, Cuyahoga County in Ohio has also released hundreds of inmates over coronavirus concerns.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Tuesday that the city will be releasing inmates who “might be particularly high-risk in terms of vulnerability to the virus.” He added in an interview with WCBS radio on Wednesday that they will identify inmates who need to be released because of their health conditions, pre-existing conditions, or if the charges were minor.
His decision comes after a prisoner and a corrections officer tested positive for the virus in the city’s notorious Rikers Island jail. De Blasio said during a press conference on Thursday that eight other prisoners have shown symptoms and have been moved to isolation in the communicable disease unit.
Meanwhile, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister in Florida announced on Thursday during a news conference that “low-level, non-violent offenders” will be released from custody to prevent the spread of the virus in the county jails. He said a total of 164 inmates have been approved for release.
“As your Sheriff, there is nothing I take more seriously than public safety and protecting our community,” said Chronister. “In times of crisis, like the health crisis we are facing, agencies around the country are finding ways to balance public safety and the health of their employees and neighbors. We are no different.”
Concerns About Spread in Detention
Chris Beyrer, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The Epoch Times that the risks of people contracting respiratory diseases such as COVID-19 are higher in prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers.
“These are very crowded, often not clean facilities. Social distancing and staying six feet or two meters away from people is often impossible,” he said. “[In] many prisons, jails, and detention centers, the beds are two feet apart. There’s no physical way that people could stay six feet apart from each other.”
A lack of access to essential sanitary products such as hand sanitizer and soap is also a concern as it also increases inmates’ risk of contracting the disease, Beyrer said. In prisons, hand sanitizers are banned in order to prevent inmates from drinking the product due to its alcohol content. Meanwhile, inmates have limited access to soap because many prisons demand a co-payment for such items. Inmates often rely on family members to bring them soap, toilet paper, and other personal sanitary products.
“But, you know, because of COVID-19 many prisons and jails are not allowing family visits. So all of that stops for people,” he added.
Other reasons for the greater risks of contracting the disease include the prevalence of older inmates or inmates with chronic health conditions, the widespread presence of mental health conditions among the U.S. prison population compared to the free population, and increased stress and anxiety in prisons can weaken their immune system, Beyrer said.
Meanwhile, there are also concerns over whether prisons and jails are prepared to deal with an outbreak of the CCP virus within the system. Beyrer said he believes the system is not prepared, saying that the prisons’ infirmary is often not equipped to do intensive care and ventilation needed to deal with serious complications of COVID-19, such as acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
“A substantial proportion of people will have [ARDS]. It has about a 30 percent mortality [rate]—a highly lethal complication. And, you know, if somebody needed ventilation, they typically would be sent to a civilian hospital again with two guards typically,” he said. “So imagine how quickly an outbreak would tie up prison staff. I mean, that would be an extremely difficult thing to be able to try and provide.”
The BOP said they had been making plans to address the CCP virus since January and have consulted many subject-matter experts. The agency released a number of measures to mitigate the transmission of the virus in federal prisons on March 13. Some measures include suspending social visits for 30 days, suspending legal visits for 30 days but case-by-case accommodation will be granted, and suspending inmate facility transfers for also 30 days.
“As part of the Pandemic Influenza contingency plan, all cleaning, sanitation, and medical supplies have been inventoried at every one of its 122 BOP facilities, and an ample amount of supply is on hand and ready to be distributed or moved to any facility as deemed necessary,” a BOP spokesperson told The Epoch Times in an email. “The Bureau of Prisons is prepared to address any supply concerns if necessary.”
On Wednesday, CNN reported that two federal prison employees tested positive for the CCP virus—the first cases in the federal prison system. One of the employees works at a medium-security prison in Berlin, New Hampshire, while the other works at an administrative facility in Grand Prairie, Texas, according to the outlet.
According to the BOP website as of Friday, the Grand Prairie, Texas, staffer is undergoing presumptive testing, while the Berlin, New Hampshire, staffer was given a “presumptive diagnosis based on flu-like symptoms.” No inmates have been diagnosed with COVID-19 so far.
The BOP did not respond to The Epoch Times’ queries about the two cases but said they were clarifying how they were reporting their numbers based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
Beyrer suggested a number of ways to minimize the risks of spread including reducing the population of people in prisons, jails, and immigration detention, consider early release for the elderly and infirm inmates who are not security threats, stop co-pays for soap and increase cleaning supplies in correctional facilities and detention centers, and prioritize personal protective equipment for prison staff who may introduce COVID-19 into prisons from the community.
There are currently over 14,600 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States and 210 deaths as of Friday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.