Advocates call for prison release of inmates who are vulnerable


The nearly 2.3million people currently incarcerated in America are particularly at risk to the coronavirus epidemic, activists warn. It has even made its way into jails. Inmates living close together and in poor treatment can lead to diseases spreading quickly within prisons. It is difficult to find resources such as soap, clean water, or cleaning supplies.

The disease, COVID-19, has sickened tens of thousands of Americans, including 21 inmates and 12 staffers at New York City jails, the largest outbreak behind bars to date. There are more than 40,000 confirmed cases in the U.S., including more than 20,000 in New York state alone.

After freeing two dozen inmates, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he and city officials were reviewing the cases of 200 others and considering them for early release. Across the Hudson River, the New Jersey Supreme Court approved the release of up to 1,000 inmates serving time for low-level offenses, which is believed the largest release in response to the virus. For weeks activists were concerned about an outbreak of the virus that could threaten inmates’ health and create a crisis. The ACLU sent letters to federal, state and local officials urging them to release inmates who are at a heightened risk of infection: individuals over 60 years old and those with chronic health problems.

Louis Reed, an organizer with #Cut50, an initiative to cut the prison population, said it’s “pandemonium” when word of a potential outbreak makes its way throughout the prison system. Reed spent nearly 14 years in a federal prison between 2000 and 2013. “When I was on the other side of life, and I learned about an outbreak,” Reed said to CBS News. “It feels as if you’re in a car driving 100 miles an hour with no seat belt on, not knowing whether that car is going to crash. “

So far, every state has suspended visitation inside facilities, according to an analysis by the Marshall Project.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who oversees Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, is tasked with keeping more than 8,700 inmates healthy. He has already suspended co-pays of inmates for medical care and established screening guidelines. In-person visits are limited. Gonzalez also seeks to free low-risk prisoners from prison.

” We can’t control our humanity at home,” Gonzalez said. His officers only arrest serious criminals. It is important that we remain strong in public safety and not lose our compassion. “

Harris County would be following the lead of New Jersey and Los Angeles County, where officials say the incarcerated population has already been cut by more than 600 people. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, home to Cleveland, also began releasing inmates through court proceedings.

Activists say changes need to be focused at all levels of the criminal justice system, from arrest to release to probation. Some don’t believe the conversation has gone far enough to protect the estimated 4.5 million under supervision; a population still in the criminal justice system, just not behind bars.

” Our state lawmakers and federal legislators need to remember that they are not just representing people in jail, but also people behind bars,” Jessica Jackson (chief policy officer at REFORM Alliance) told CBS News. We need to make sure they’re thinking about how we can protect the nation’s most vulnerable population. “

Justin Bey contributed to this report.

Tyler Kendall

Tyler is a producer for CBSN. Also, she covers criminal justice reform. Contact her at tyler@cbsnews.com

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