While the rest of us are doing our utmost to avoid human contact, prisoners don't have that option. They are kept in open, close quarters that are conducive to spreading the coronavirus. Officials are trying to lower the risk by letting some inmates out of prison.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr released a memorandum to the director of the Bureau of Prisons encouraging the use of home confinement for vulnerable and low-risk inmates. He said the agency has 10,000 inmates over age 60 currently in custody (note one-third of those would not qualify since they were convicted of violent or sex offenses) who are at high risk due to their age, especially the ones with health problems. Contracting the virus could turn their prison sentence into a death sentence. Instead, they could be released to home detention.
But the prisons and jails are not using good judgment in regards to who they're freeing. Lower-level offenders are being released, and those caught committing lower-level offenses are merely cited and released. But some of these "lower-level offenses" sound pretty violent. Philadelphia Police Chief Danielle Outlaw told officers to stop arresting people for crimes such as burglary and vandalism. Depending on the type of burglary, it can be a violent crime. Business burglaries have increased 75% since the pandemic started. Vandalism goes hand in hand with that. Chain retailers that have shut down are being forced to board up their shops. Why would we make looting, vandalism and burglaries easier at this time?
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In contrast, many elderly, nonviolent prisoners aren't being released. This is troubling considering how badly the virus is spreading in prisons. A federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, has stopped testing inmates for the coronavirus due to how much it has spread there. BOP confirmed that seven inmates there have tested positive for the virus. But the agency has not released the number of presumed positive cases. One inmate has died. A maintenance worker told Vice that 68 inmates are being quarantined. An inmate told Vice, "Everyone in the facility is sick and coughing." The inmates sleep in bunk beds, with no way to isolate or socially distance.
BOP confirms that inmates at six of its facilities around the country have contracted the virus. Yet the agency continues to transfer inmates, increasing the risk of spreading the virus. Inmates are prohibited from having hand sanitizer since it contains alcohol.
"A jail is essentially a petri dish. Once the virus gets in there, it could have a devastating effect," said Public Defender Keith Lotridge of Maryland. Ross MacDonald, chief physician at Rikers Island jail in New York, issued a warning. "We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom. Think of a cruise ship recklessly boarding more passengers each day," he wrote on Twitter. "A storm is coming. …"
Former Republican Rep. Steve Stockman is over 60, has diabetes (considered high risk for the coronavirus), a lung condition and is wrongfully in prison due to a politically charged Justice Department under the Obama administration. He has not been released and feels like he's under a ticking time bomb. He said that jail staff instructed the inmates to "shelter in place" for 14 days. But, "Forcing inmates to stay near each other for 14 days is like telling people on a ship the best solution is to all get everyone together in one room to stop the spread." Stockman can't go outside to get away from the other inmates since that's been banned due to the shutdown. The air conditioning has been turned very cold in the hopes that it will stop the virus, but it's probably just spreading it quicker through the ducts. He told me, "They are turning the warehouse into a hospital for prisoners. We are jokingly calling it a morgue for us."
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Letting all these elderly inmates linger is also putting correctional officers at risk. A guard who works inside the Arizona State Prison Complex in Tucson said they are not allowed to wear face masks. This is ostensibly to avoid creating panic. But the inmates already know what's going on; they watch the news. The prison said they didn't want to take away critical supplies from medical personnel. But what about wearing bandannas?
Stockman says it's bizarre that Iran, perhaps the most oppressive country in the world, has released 85,000 of its prisoners, while the U.S. is just letting a few types out. The prisons are mostly ignoring the directive from Barr about the sick and elderly nonviolent prisoners. There are 14 Democratic and Republican senators – including Charles Grassley and Mike Lee – the ACLU and the ACU, over 40 former DOJ officials and nine bipartisan advocacy organizations that have called for the release of elderly prisoners who are at risk. Stockman's wife, Patti, has made a video for Trump pleading for her husband's release. When Republicans and Democrats join together on something, it must be taken seriously. Japan has isolated the elderly and infirm. They have not shut down their economy, and they have a low death rate.
But the deep unionized federal bureaucrats running the prisons think they are smarter than any professionals, including doctors. And they may be holding back because some of the lower-security prisons do work to support the higher-security prisons – a very selfish reason considering people's lives are at stake. Does Barr realize they are ignoring his directive? How many have to die first?