These days, we are all worried about those most susceptible to the ravages of the COVID-19 virus—not only the elderly and already sick but also those on the daily line of fire, like medical first responders and the countless essential workers still on the job.
But my inbox is filling up with letters beseeching Americans not to forget the incarcerated locked up in jails and prisons. These places are notoriously overcrowded and oftentimes operated in dilapidated and unsanitary conditions. There is no possibility for inmates to practice social distancing, to wash their hands at will or to possess a face mask. They are trapped in places that are notorious breeding grounds for germs.
Brendaly Segarra was one of many who wrote me to say, “We see commercials of animals in cages suffering and we are moved with compassion, but when it comes to inmates they are thrown away and people forget that they are human beings that are completely helpless.”
Cheryl Maddox told me about her son. “(He) only have five months left of a 5 year sentence. He has struggled to get to this point, and for them to knowingly allow him to be exposed to this virus is inhumane.”
Maddox and others who are related to imprisoned citizens believe incarceration during a ravaging pandemic amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Indeed, prisoners have died in several states, including Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Louisiana and Washington, D.C. If inmates are infected, it’s a safe bet guards will be, too.
Death may soon be coming to a prison near you. Unlike the national response to COVID-19, there seems to be no uniform plan for dealing with this highly contagious disease in local and state jails and prisons.
Attorney General William Barr did recently write to the Federal Bureau of Prisons asking that more “at-risk inmates who are non-violent and pose minimal likelihood of recidivism” be released to home confinement. Barr listed a six-bullet-point guideline for release, including the age, health and original crime of the prisoner. Sex offenders and violent inmates are not eligible for release.
But at the local and state level, there has been a hodgepodge of court orders and scattershot prisoner releases, some of which seem both ill-conceived and badly carried out.
Several states have decided to ease overpopulation by releasing inmates who could not afford bail and are incarcerated while awaiting trial, or those deemed to be “low-level offenders.” There is evidence, however, that some decisions are being made on a defendant’s last arrest and without regard to their criminal history.
New York judges have even granted coronavirus-related release to a convicted cop killer.
In Florida, Joseph Williams, 26, was in jail after his arrest for possession of heroin, considered a third-degree felony, and possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor. In the effort to mitigate the spread of the virus, a state judge ordered county sheriffs to release any pretrial detainee arrested for a misdemeanor or third-degree felony.
The Hillsborough County jail released 164 prisoners, described by the sheriff as being those with “the lowest public safety risk.” Williams was among them. One day later, Williams was arrested again on suspicion of murder. Apparently, in the race to winnow inmate populations, Williams’ extensive criminal record, which included arrests on 35 charges, was either overlooked or considered unimportant.
We should all care about the treatment of prisoners because a vast majority of them will serve their time and reenter society. Certainly, they have been found guilty of crimes against their communities, but does that mean, in addition to their incarceration, they must stay trapped in a potentially deadly environment as well? Doesn’t someone who is nonviolent, has behaved themselves in prison and has served a majority of their original sentence deserve to go home to their family to ride out this pandemic?
This ferocity of COVID-19 caught the world by surprise, but it is past time for each state to come up with a humane and sensible plan to safely deal with its incarcerated population, especially the elderly and ill. They all deserve plentiful hand sanitizers, protective masks and aggressive testing, just like the rest of us.