Fears over COVID-19 spread and challenges practising adequate hygiene and social distancing put North America’s prison inmates at an exceptionally high risk of contracting the virus and potentially turning a light sentence into a death sentence.
That’s why some regions in the U.S. and Canada are mulling the benefits of granting early release to inmates convicted of, or awaiting trial for, non-violent crimes such as cannabis possession. Other jurisdictions, though, have already started that process.
Given prisons are often near, at or over maximum capacity, and inmates are in extremely close proximity, the institutions can rapidly become a hotbed of COVID-19 contagion. The virus can survive on surfaces and in the air, as well as be transmitted by bodily fluids such as saliva droplets emitted while coughing, sneezing or speaking.
Last weekend, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner of the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the release of inmates accused or convicted of non-violent infractions such as disorderly conduct, petty crimes, probation violations, low-level felonies and potentially those with municipal court convictions.
“The reduction of county jail populations, under appropriate conditions, is in the public interest to mitigate risks imposed by COVID-19,” Justice Radner wrote. Experts had “reviewed certifications from healthcare professionals regarding the profound risk posed to people in correctional facilities arising from the spread of COVID-19,” he noted.
There has already been a coronavirus outbreak on Rikers Island, in which more than 50 prisoners and multiple staff members — neither of whom are reported to have been allotted personal protective equipment or additional cleaning supplies — have contracted the illness so far.
“Rikers Island is more reactionary than preventative… [administrators] wait for things to happen first before they do anything about it,” an unnamed guard toldTime. “‘We feel like all of us are gonna get corona.”
About 300 Rikers inmates are now set for release, but they aren’t the only ones in the state.
This week, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced the early release of approximately 1,000 prisoners in an attempt to mitigate COVID-19 spread. The city is considered the epicentre of the U.S. outbreak.
De Blasio has also said that he intends to look into the release of inmates over the age of 70. However, not all will qualify, particularly those accused of crimes such as sexual assault or domestic violence.
“Some have many months, some have only a few months, some have only weeks, but I’m going to treat this category across the board,” de Blasio said during a press conference “We will move to release those 300 inmates immediately.
The East Coast is certainly not alone in releasing prisoners early. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has released about 600 prisoners so far. The L.A. County jail system is one of the largest in the country, with an estimated 22,000 inmates.
“Our population within our jails is a vulnerable population just by who they are, where they are located, so we’re protecting that population from potential exposure,” Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva told media in a press conference this week.
Some incarcerated celebrities, such as rapper Tekashi69, Michael Cohen and Bill Cosby have cited the pandemic in their bids to gain early release. The first two have had their requestsdenied, while Cosby’s is pending.
Canadian social justice experts are also advocating for early prisoner release amid the outbreak. Two units in a Saskatoon prison are reportedly on lockdown as a result of infection, warning that the inability to achieve social distancing renders prisoners vulnerable to contracting the virus.
“What we have is people in very close contact who have little or no say in the level of hygiene and no ability to self-isolate,” Amanda Hart-Dowhun, president of the Alberta Prison Justice Society, told Global News. “Once COVID hits an institution, it will be very difficult — if not impossible — to stop it from spreading within the entire institution.”
Lucie Lemonde, a spokesperson for Quebec’s Ligue des droits et libertés and professor at Université de Québec à Montreal, said the current state of affairs in Canada’s prisons is disturbing, and puts both staff and prisoners at risk. This is especially the situation given the lack of personal protective gear.
“What we are hearing from inside is alarming,” Lemonde said in a statement released this week, citing a lack of protective gear issued to staff and inmates. “It’s simple. To avoid a catastrophe, the release of prisoners must be accelerated.”
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Written by Emma Spears