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Jails, Prisons Struggle with Spread of Coronavirus

As COVID-19 continues to spread globally and the U.S. has now become the first country to top 100,000 cases, prisons and jails across the country continue to house inmates and employees who have tested positive for the coronavirus and authorities are desperately trying to abate the spread.

For example, due to the severity of the virus that had killed 32,137 around the world and 2,054 in the U.S. as of Sunday, March 29, The Board of Corrections, an agency providing oversight of New York City jails, urgently recommended that all people with a high risk of dying from the virus be released from the jail immediately. The board also asked that the jail take the necessary steps to significantly decrease the jail’s population immediately since social distancing has been among the keys to preventing the spread of the virus along with thorough hand washing and decontamination of surfaces.

In response to the recommendation, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio released 40 people from New York’s Rikers Island Friday and another 23 people Sunday who were considered at a high risk of dying from the virus.

De Blasio took to Twitter to tell New Yorkers “an additional 200 being evaluated right now for release who have less than 90 days left in their sentences.”

However, the release of 63 people is just not enough to stop the spread of the virus, which easily moves from person to person and can also be contracted from surfaces and the environment where an infected person has coughed or sneezed. Therefore, advocates for the incarcerated are pressing authorities to do more.

Jails throughout the United States have followed similar precautions to protect inmates, staff and the general public:

  • As states struggle for answers and public health advocates encourage the release of nonviolent inmates endangered by the virus, the federal prison system on Sunday, announced its first death. Patrick Jones, 49, who was housed in a minimum-security prison in Oakdale, La., has died from the virus after testing positive on March 19, according to widespread reports.
  • California has also begun releasing large numbers of inmates in response to the coronavirus pandemic. According to the L.A. Times, Los Angeles County reduced its jail population by 6 percent in February.
  • Pennsylvania, Maine, Texas, Illinois and Ohio have also begun releasing inmates amidst state outbreaks.
  • The Bureau of Prisons has suspended all visits for 30 days. Inmate transfers have also been with few exceptions.
  • Many inmates who are assumed to have had contact with the virus are being quarantined.
  • The New York City’s union for corrections officers has demanded to be given more protective materials like masks, gloves, soap and hand sanitizer.
  • According to NPR, Arizona and Minnesota prisons have waived copays charged for inmates seeking medical visits and waived fees for personal hygiene supplies amidst the outbreak.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said in a letter to The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), “Our incarcerated population faces severe threats to their health and safety every day, and BOP must prioritize and work diligently to improve prison conditions nationwide. As the country prepares for coronavirus, it is also incumbent upon BOP — in coordination with HHS — to prevent outbreaks and to safely and humanely treat all affected individuals.”

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