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Amid fears that the coronavirus will carve a deadly path through prisons and jails, counties and states are releasing thousands of inmates -- New Jersey alone began freeing hundreds of people this week -- and the federal prison system is coming under intense pressure to take similar measures.

Public health and corrections officials have issued dire warnings that cramped and unsanitary conditions could turn prisons into a haven for the virus, endangering not just inmates but also corrections officers and prison health care workers as well as their families and communities.

Criminal justice reform advocates from across the political spectrum urged President Donald Trump on Tuesday to use his clemency power to commute the sentences of inmates eligible for "compassionate release" and others who could be at risk, particularly the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.

"This is a real disaster waiting to happen," David Patton, executive director of the nonprofit Federal Defenders of New York, said Sunday, the day after the first federal inmate tested positive at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. "These are places that are particularly susceptible to contagion."

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Inside a county jail in Alabama on Friday, two inmates threatened to kill themselves if newly arrived Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees they feared had been exposed to the virus were not removed. According to video livestreamed on an inmate's Facebook page, the two detainees stood on a ledge over a common area, nooses fashioned from sheets wrapped around their necks, and threatened to jump.

"We're not having no more people come in here with that symptom," another inmate says in the video, which was obtained by The Washington Post. "We're not trying to put no more lives at risk."

The three new detainees had described being taken to the facility in the same van as an individual who was visibly ill and wearing a mask, inmates said in interviews with The Post. An ICE spokesman, Bryan Cox, said none of the three had flu-like symptoms, but he did not know whether they had been tested for the virus.

The hourslong standoff ended when guards moved the new arrivals to a different unit of the facility, the Etowah County jail in northern Alabama, inmates said.

About 2.3 million people are incarcerated in local jails and state and federal prisons, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, an organization that opposes mass incarceration. Among them is Anh Do, 78, a former doctor who said he has coronary artery disease, hypertension and diabetes.

Do, a Houston resident, was convicted in 2018 on Medicare fraud charges. In January, the Bureau of Prisons denied his request for compassionate release, which allows for home confinement of prisoners who are gravely ill.

"We are living 3 feet apart, in bunk beds, like a dormitory," Do said in a telephone interview from a low-security federal prison in Seagoville, Texas. "I'm at very high risk. If one person gets sick, it's like a death sentence in here."

On Monday, 14 senators from both parties sent a letter to the Justice Department, which oversees the federal prison system, asking that it make full use of its power to release elderly, terminally ill and low-risk inmates to home confinement.

"We write to express our serious concern for the health and well being of federal prison staff and inmates in Federal custody, especially those who are most vulnerable to infection, and to urge you to take necessary steps to protect them," the lawmakers -- including Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. -- wrote to U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal.

Advocates for criminal justice reform have been pressing the Justice Department to release more elderly and terminally ill inmates early since late 2018, when Trump signed a law that expanded eligibility for home confinement.

The Justice Department has resisted those appeals. As recently as December, the department warned that prisoners who had committed serious crimes could be released if Congress passed a bill meant to expand the number of elderly prisoners eligible for release to home confinement.

In a news conference on Sunday, Trump said that he is considering an executive order that would free elderly nonviolent offenders from federal prison. "We have been asked about that, and we're going to take a look at it," Trump said. "It's a -- it's a bit of a problem. We're talking about totally nonviolent prisoners."

At the same time, the Justice Department is contemplating a scenario in which some inmates could remain in custody longer than they otherwise would while trials or other hearings are delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to proposals it submitted to Congress.

Information for this article was contributed by Julie Tate, Neena Satija, Lisa Rein, Justin Moyer and Matt Zapotosky of The Washington Post.

A Section on 03/26/2020

Print Headline: Jails, prisons face outbreak fears


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