A U.S. deputy marshal at the D.C. Superior Court tested positive for the novel coronavirus, a development underscoring the growing concern the disease may have on the courts and, by extension, the prison system.
The novel coronavirus — or COVID-19 — had claimed more than 10,000 lives globally as of Friday. Cases of the disease have topped 244,500 globally. In the United States, the death toll has topped 200, and more than 14,000 people have been infected.
While often overlooked, the nation’s jail and prison population could be among the most vulnerable. The marshal’s positive test could also mean that prisoners, co-workers, and individuals associated with the court and jail could have been exposed.
“As a result [of the positive test], we immediately notified those court staff who may have had contact with the deputy marshal and had both courtrooms and the holding cells that adjoin them thoroughly cleaned and disinfected,” said U.S. Marshals Service spokeswoman Leah Gurowitz.
Bloomberg News reported that U.S. courts across the country are trying to address the pandemic, including delaying hearings and jury trials and restricting courthouse access for those who have traveled to countries affected by the virus or closing courthouses off to the public outright.
According to the Bloomberg report, recent changes include the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit suspending in-person oral arguments because of the coronavirus. Arguments may be held by teleconference, postponed or decided without an oral argument depending on a decision by the panel of judges hearing that case, according to the report. The order will be in effect until further notice.
As of Friday, 66 D.C. Jail inmates reportedly self-quarantined after the revelation of the marshal’s positive test. Each is believed to have had some contact with the marshal.
One inmate in the D.C. jail has been tested for the virus and is awaiting results as of press time.
Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy sought to decrease the jail’s population in Upper Marlboro to minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus. There have been no confirmed cases at the jail, which holds more than 700 people at capacity but currently only houses 80.
“We will consider cases in which individuals are charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses or have a short time left on their sentence,” Braveboy said in a statement. “Our goal is to safely and judiciously reduce the inmate population considering the public health crisis caused by the coronavirus.”
Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the District, Maryland and Virginia have said they wouldn’t oppose similar releases in their jurisdictions.
“As prosecutors, we are committed to protecting the safety and well-being of everyone in our community, and that includes people who are currently in prison or jail,” Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a statement. “I firmly believe that we can promote public health and public safety at the same time, and that’s what these new policies will achieve.”
Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Karen Bass (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr urging him to take immediate steps to protect Justice Department personnel and inmates under their watch.
Between the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshal Service, the department oversees about 250,000 convicts and inmates awaiting trial.
“With large numbers of people living in close proximity to one another, many of them elderly or living with chronic diseases, DOJ must act now to save lives,” Nadler and Brown wrote. “Accordingly, we urge you to put in place measures to ensure that both the flow of prisoners into federal facilities is slowed significantly and that prisoners who can and should be released are released forthwith. We cannot wait any longer to take action.”
In a telephone call with the local ABC News affiliate, an inmate at the D.C. Jail who said his name was Robert Smith said the fear is palpable among those locked up.
“They keep telling us, ‘don’t worry, it’s nothing to be worried about,’ but they’re coming in here with masks and gloves on to get the inmates,” Smith said. “Then, when they take them out in the hallway, they put masks on them, too.”