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Concerns grow about coronavirus spreading in prisons

Prisoners particularly vulnerable population as numbers of diagnoses grow

Criminal justice and civil rights groups want Congress and federal and state officials to take action to protect the COVID-19 virus from spreading to the nation’s jails and prisons, a particularly vulnerable population because medical care is low and confined spaces make social distancing a challenge.

The American Civil Liberties Union wrote the Justice Department and Bureau of Prisons on Wednesday to request the release of the most vulnerable inmates — those who are elderly or with chronic health conditions — and to slow prison admissions and reduce overcrowded conditions.

[Federal prisons don’t have coronavirus test kits for inmates]

There are nearly 250,000 people in the 122 federal prisons, with more than 10,000 over the age of 60, and “time is of the essence” for the government to “safeguard the health of those under its care,” the ACLU wrote.

“Deliberate action must be taken to meet the responsibility to ensure the health of those incarcerated in the federal system,” the ACLU wrote. “Any delay will only serve to exacerbate the circumstances with possible fatal consequences.”

The highly contagious virus is already at the door of some prisons and sparking changes. Two Bureau of Prisons staff members tested as presumed positive for the virus but there are no known cases of COVID-19 among inmates at this time, spokeswoman Sue Allison said Wednesday.

Allison said she did not have additional details about the two staff. She said the bureau has “an ample supply” of cleaning, sanitation and medical supplies that are ready to be distributed or moved to any facility.

“Inmates are encouraged to wash their hands frequently with soap and water in accordance with the CDC’s guidance,” Allison said. “There is no shortage of hand soap for either staff or inmates.”

Kentucky and other states have closed all state prisons to visitors. Employees of state prisons in Washington and New York have tested positive for the highly contagious virus, while a local court in Cleveland held special sessions to try to clear pending cases and release inmates, according to media reports.

On Wednesday, a deputy marshal working in Washington’s local court system, assigned to two D.C. courtrooms, tested positive for the virus, WTOP news reported.

The Bureau of Prisons on March 13 suspended all social visits, volunteers and non-essential contractors from federal prisons for 30 days, as well as all transfers between prisons. Those steps are part of an action plan the bureau says has been in the works since January, acknowledging more infections are coming nationally and “noting that the population density of prisons creates a risk of infection and transmission for inmates and staff.”

A coalition of civil rights and other advocacy groups wrote Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other senators Tuesday to urge the passage of a bill that makes more prisoners eligible for a pilot program to transfer nonviolent federal inmates over age 60 to home confinement.

The program was part of a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul law for programs to help inmates rejoin society after serving out their term, and the House passed the bill on a voice vote in December. The groups pointed out that the bill would also save government funds that could be used on the government’s response to the virus.

“But perhaps most importantly, especially given COVID-19, medical care available on ‘the outside’ is incomparably better than the medical care available in prison,” the groups wrote. “While accountability is important, with the COVID-19 threat, these offenders face a possible death sentence.”

Among the ACLU’s recommendations for the Justice Department: release vulnerable inmates from U.S. Marshal’s Service custody in state, local, private and federal facilities where they could be exposed to the virus; use “compassionate release” for those over 65 and with certain health conditions; and transfer early the prisoners who are within a year of moving to community supervision.

And the ACLU points out other DOJ options to keep more inmates from entering prison, such as declining to prosecute minor drug cases or not seeking incarceration for some criminal cases.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond Wednesday to questions about its response to the virus or the ACLU letter. The group sent a similar letter to state officials Wednesday.

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Lawmakers have raised their own concerns about prisons and the novel coronavirus. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler wrote Attorney General William Barr last week with 14 questions about how the Justice Department was responding to COVID-19.

“I also believe it would be important, at this time, for DOJ to consider measures that can be taken to reduce the number of prisoners in government custody,” Nadler wrote in the letter. “Specifically, I believe DOJ should consider directing U.S. Attorney’s Offices, wherever possible, to not seek the detention of individuals at their initial appearance in court, decline prosecuting minor, non-violent offenses, and decline pursuing supervised release and probation revocations that involve technical and minor violations.”

And Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren and 14 other senators sent a similar letter to the Bureau of Prisons with 17 questions.

“Does BOP have sufficient resources to effectively manage a potential coronavirus outbreak? If not, what additional resources are needed?” the letter asks.

And Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz wrote the Bureau of Prisons to request that its prison worker program increase the production of personal protective equipment that can help prevent the transmission of the virus, such as hand sanitizer.

Separately, immigrant advocacy groups have raised concerns about COVID-19 and Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers. The ACLU asked a federal court to release a group of immigrants at a Seattle-area detention center because of their vulnerability to contracting the disease.

On Monday, the civil liberties group filed a habeas corpus petition on behalf of nine detainees at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Tacoma, Wash., an area with some of the highest number of coronavirus cases in the United States. All nine have preexisting conditions — such as lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, kidney disease, autoimmune disorders, asthma and hypertension.

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