House Democrats, led by Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY), are urging Attorney General Bill Barr to “release as many prisoners as possible” as states work to handle the coronavirus outbreaks in their states.
Both Nadler and Subcommittee on Crime Chairwoman Karen Bass (D-CA) wrote a letter to Barr on Monday, urging him to “do the right thing and exercise this authority and immediately move to release medically-compromised, elderly and pregnant prisoners from the custody of the BOP [Bureau of Prisons].”
“In addition, we urge that you use every tool at your disposal to release as many prisoners as possible, to protect them from COVID-19,” the letter reads in part.
“Along those lines, and as you move forward with planning for and executing the release of what we hope will be an appropriately sizable number of BOP prisoners, we urge you to consider the issues raised below,” it continues:
On the evening of March 28, 2020, we sadly learned of the first death of a prisoner in the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) due to COVID-19. The decedent was a 49-year-old African-American man who, according to the BOP’s press release announcing his death, had “long-term, pre-existing medical conditions which the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) lists as risk factors for developing more severe COVID-19 disease.” He was housed in a low-security facility in Oakdale, Louisiana. Reports now indicate that one guard at the same facility is in intensive care due to COVID-19 and there have been positive test results for another 30 prisoners and staff. This death and the explosion of cases in the Oakdale prison underscore the urgency of taking action to prevent more avoidable deaths of individuals in federal custody.
JUST IN: After Rising Numbers of Federal Prisoners Test Positive for #COVID19 & First COVID-19 related Death Reported in Federal Prison, @RepJerryNadler & @RepKarenBass Renew Call for DOJ to Take Actionhttps://t.co/YzYAIJpg26
— House Judiciary Dems (@HouseJudiciary) March 30, 2020
The letter comes as concerns emerge over coronavirus outbreaks among prison populations, which maintain a high risk due to the nature of prisons — close quarters and common areas.
Barr said in a memo to BOP Director Michael Carvajal that “at-risk inmates who are non-violent and pose minimal likelihood of recidivism” could be “safer serving their sentences in home confinement” but acknowledged that others “will be safer in BOP facilities where the population is controlled and there is ready access to doctors and medical care.”
“There are particular concerns in this institutional setting. We want to make sure that our institutions don’t become Petri dishes and it spreads rapidly through a particular institution,” Barr said at a press conference on Thursday.
“We have the protocols that are designed to stop that and we are using all the tools we have to protect the inmates,” he added.
Nadler and Bass said they were troubled by Barr’s view that, in some cases, inmates will be safer in a controlled prison environment.
“While that may well be the case for some inmates, we hope this statement does not indicate that you believe that prison is a safe place for anyone to be during a pandemic,” they wrote.
“Quite the contrary, as already demonstrated by the death of a medically-compromised BOP prisoner and the growing numbers of infected persons in BOP facilities across the country,” they continued, reiterating that 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 risk factors for COVID-19 spreading in prisons and jails are abundantly clear – close quarters, a large number of individuals who are medically vulnerable, and a limited availability of treatment,” Nadler said in a statement alongside the letter.
He went on to contend that those steps are “urgently needed and are the right thing to do:”
We must give states and local governments critical funding assistance to prevent the spread of this disease in these facilities, to test and treat inmates and those working in prisons, and to promote the reduction in the populations of prisons and jails so that fewer people are put at risk.
Similarly, Bass released a statement, calling for the release of inmates who are pregnant, suffer a “serious chronic medical condition,” or are over the age of 55 and “pose a low risk to the public.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) issued similar demands last week. The pandemic, she said, is the perfect time for progressives to finally purse “decarceral policy.” She called for “elderly clemency,” especially for older inmates from the Rikers Island complex:
“And one thing that we need to do right now is really hit fast forward on progressive developments and pursuing decarceral policy because people’s lives are at risk,” she said during a virtual roundtable discussion with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) last week.
“There are people in jails right now, in situations that are completely destitute and wrong,” she continued:
And 21 incarcerated individuals have already tested positive for COVID-19. Those are folks who have been able to get tested. And as we know, tests are very limited. They are rationed for people who are already exhibiting quite extreme symptoms so we have no idea how much this outbreak is going out. So there are a lot of things we are asking for. One, we need to provide elderly clemency. There are plenty of people on Rikers that have been 60, 70, 80, 90 years old, who quite literally need someone to take care of them and they’re still kept in a cage in Rikers Island and in prisons throughout the United States. We need to ensure that we are granting elderly clemency in the United States.
Several areas have already begun to release inmates, including hundreds from jails in New York City.
“Our city jail population is now 4,906,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week.
“That’s the fewest detainees we’ve had in our jails since 1949. By tonight, the number of inmates released in response to the COVID-19 crisis will go from 200 up to 375,” he continued. “We will continue to address this in the safest way possible”:
Our city jail population is now 4,906. That’s the fewest detainees we’ve had in our jails since 1949.
By tonight, the number of inmates released in response to the COVID-19 crisis will go from 200 up to 375.
We will continue to address this in the safest way possible.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) March 26, 2020
Notably, grand larceny auto has skyrocketed in the city during the outbreak.
As Breitbart News reported:
In the last week, alone, grand larceny auto was up more than 51 percent across New York City compared to 2019 totals.
This week last year, there were less than 70 grand larceny auto cases. This year, there have been 103 grand larceny auto cases from March 16 to March 22. Over the past month, grand larceny auto cases are up nearly 80 percent in New York City compared to the same time in 2019.
Officials in other areas, including Los Angeles County, California; Cook County, Illinois; and Cuyahoga County, Ohio, have also released hundreds of inmates as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.