Members of Congress Urge Attorney General to ‘Release as Many Prisoners as Possible’

March 31, 2020 Updated: April 1, 2020

Democratic Representatives urged Attorney General William Barr to release vulnerable prisoners who are serving time in Louisiana federal prisons. The measure aims to stop the spread of the CCP virus and prevent more deaths.

In a letter sent Monday, House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) urged the U.S. Attorney General William Barr to use the authority granted to him under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to protect elderly, sick, and pregnant prisoners.

The Congress members referred to the low-security facility in Oakdale, Louisiana, where an inmate recently died from the CCP virus, a guard is reported in a serious condition, and another 30 prisoners tested positive for the virus.

They encouraged Attorney General Barr to do more to protect prisoners from the virus and “release as many prisoners as possible.”

The Representatives said they were glad that the Attorney General had taken steps to mitigate the spread of the CCP virus in prisons when he issued a memorandum to the Bureau of Prisoners (BOP) to release some inmates to their homes.

“Although we were encouraged to see that you have already issued a directive to the Director of the BOP prioritizing home confinement as appropriate in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the memorandum raised several concerns for the Representatives.

The Democrats stated that under the CARES Act, the Attorney General needs to deem the situation an “emergency” before the BOP can release inmates.

“As you know, before BOP can exercise its authority under the CARES Act, the Attorney General must make a finding that ’emergency conditions will materially affect the functioning of the Bureau [of Prisons].’”

“We urge you to make this finding immediately,” the representatives continued.

They made arguments against the memorandum, in which Barr wrote that prison is a safer place for most prisoners, and they have access to health care. The lawmakers adamantly disagreed and wrote that there is no way to apply the social distancing principle within prison confines appropriately and that the BOP’s healthcare staff is understaffed.

“For all these reasons, the best way to ensure that our prisons do not become epicenters of this incredibly virulent, contagious, and deadly disease is to release as many people as possible.”

The letter went on to state that the criterion used to decide which prisoners should be released for home incarceration was faulty and left out high-risk and elderly prisoners.

Lawmakers wanted Barr to “exercise your authority to release as many people as possible into home confinement, under the elderly home confinement pilot program established under the Second Chance Act.”

The Democrats insisted that under the CARES Act, Barr should “release to home confinement every person who is currently finishing out his or her sentence in a residential reentry center.”

They argued for COVID 19 testing of prisoners that are being moved from one prison facility to another.

They asked Barr to have the department “gather data pertaining to every inmate in BOP and whether they were considered for release, and if not, why not.”

This latest push in Louisiana fits a trend by authorities in other states to release prisoners to stop the mounting death toll caused by the CCP virus.

Last week, New Jersey authorities announced that hundreds of inmates would be released temporarily, as cases rose in neighboring New York. Former movie producer Harvey Weinstein had tested positive after spending time at the notorious Rikers Island jail.

According to Reuters, at least 132 inmates and 104 staff at jails across New York City on Saturday had tested positive for the virus.

Last week, authorities announced they would be releasing 300 nonviolent inmates.

In California, another hotspot for the virus, Los Angeles County, has released 1,700 inmates, or about one out of every 10 inmates, in response to the CCP virus.

All of the inmates had fewer than 30 days left on their sentences and were in jail because of nonviolent misdemeanors.

The majority of America’s prison population of over 2 million is housed in state prisons. There are currently just over 175,000 inmates held in federal prisons.

Barr said on Thursday that he had directed the Bureau of Prisons to assess whether it was possible to expand home confinement “particularly for those older prisoners who have served substantial parts of their sentence and no longer pose a threat and may have underlying conditions that make them particularly vulnerable.”

“We have authorities under the First Step Act and under other general authorities … will permit us to release to home confinement for certain designated circumstances,” Barr said during an unrelated press conference. “And I’ve asked and issued a memorandum just today to the Bureau of Prisons to increase the use of home confinement based on a number of factors.”

Simon Veazey Contributed to this report.