State, county, and city prisons and jails across the United States are releasing thousands of convicted criminals back into the general population in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic – and now the federal prisons are being urged to adopt the same measure. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but chances are it won’t be good.
As everyone knows by now, “social distancing” is the key strategy health professionals recommend to prevent the coronavirus from spreading – keeping away from other people and avoiding physical contact. But in an enclosed space like a prison, where several people share a cell, social distancing is impossible – and thus those populations are most vulnerable to infection should the virus enter their institutions. And not only prisoners would be at risk, but the officers and staff as well – not to mention their friends, families, and communities back home.
The states of Iowa and New Jersey have already begun releasing hundreds of inmates, as have county prisons in Cuyahoga County in Ohio, Alameda County in California (which encompasses San Francisco), Mercer County in Pennsylvania, and Washington County in Oregon – and the City of New York. And now, the federal prison system is being pressured into doing the same thing, according to a report by the Washington Post.
On March 23, 14 senators from both of the major parties sent a joint letter to the Justice Department asking them to arrange for home detention for prisoners who have been deemed eligible for “compassionate release,” most especially those with chronic medical conditions, who are of advanced age, who committed minor offenses, or who are otherwise considered “low risk.”
The following day, President Trump was advised by some prisoner advocates to use his clemency powers to commute the sentences of some prisoners in those categories. And on March 22, Trump said during a news briefing that he is considering an executive order that would release elderly non-violent prisoners early.
These suggestions are nothing new, however, as there has been pressure to increase the release of such prisoners since 2018, when the President signed a bill into law which made it easier for inmates to serve their sentences in home confinement.
The Justice Department, however, has objected to these suggestions, claiming that releasing large numbers of prisoners early runs the risk of dangerous criminals being reintroduced into the general population. But now, with the coronavirus crisis unfolding, they may feel that there is no other choice than to open the gates of the prisons after all.
Since the coronavirus pandemic became a national crisis, the Justice Department had already requested that Congress give them the power to send “compassionate release”-category prisoners back out into society even if they aren’t currently eligible. Federal law currently says that such prisoners can only spend the last 10%, or six months, of their terms in home confinement.
The reverse aspect of the problem Is that, with courthouses and committee rooms being temporarily shut down, some inmates may end up being forced to spend a longer period behind bars than is actually warranted, until the system can get around to dealing with their cases again.
The only thing that seems certain is that major problems are on the horizon for American prisons. Either they will soon begin to experience serious healthcare breakdowns, or else potentially dangerous convicts will be back on America’s streets – and inevitably, not all of them will have seen the error of their previous ways.
The Prison Policy Initiative claims there are approximately 2.3 million inmates in prisons all over the United States at present.