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AG William Barr expediting release of vulnerable inmates at federal prisons swamped by coronavirus

Prison Bars (Michael Coghlan/Flickr)

Attorney General William Barr is expediting the release of vulnerable inmates at three federal prisons where authorities are scrambling to contain coronavirus infections.

In a late Friday memorandum to the Bureau of Prisons, Barr urged officials to move inmates out of facilities in Louisiana, Ohio and Connecticut, as infections and virus-related deaths have mounted.

“We are experiencing significant levels of infection at several of our facilities, including the Federal Correctional Institution Oakdale (Lousiana), Danbury (Connecticut) and Elkton (Ohio),” Barr said. “We have to move with dispatch in using home confinement when appropriate to move vulnerable inmates out these institutions.”

The virus has claimed at least four inmates at the low-security institution at Oakdale, Louisiana.

As of Friday night, the bureau reported that 91 inmates and 50 staffers have been infected in the largest prison system in the country. The tally has increased steadily every day for more than a week.

“Given the speed with which this disease has spread through the general public, it is clear that time is of the essence,” the attorney general said.

Barr said he was acting under new authority granted by the stimulus legislation to expand releases to reduce risk to the aged and chronically ill within the prison system.

“For all inmates whom you deem suitable candidates for home confinement, you are directed to immediately process them for transfer and then immediately transfer them following a 14-day quarantine at an appropriate BOP facility,” Barr wrote. “It is vital that we not inadvertently contribute to the spread of COVID-19 by transferring inmates from our facilities.”

The attorney general said he was taking the action despite limited staffing and technological resources to monitor newly released inmates.

“I therefore authorize BOP to transfer inmates to home confinement even if electronic monitoring is not available,” Barr said, “so long as BOP determines in every such instance that doing so is appropriate and consistent with our obligation to protect public safety.”

At the same time, Barr cautioned officials against a mass release, so as not to potentially overwhelm local police on the outside.

“The last thing our massively overburdened police forces need right now is the indiscriminate release of thousands of prisoners onto the streets without any verification that those prisoners will follow the laws when they are released, that they have a safe place to go to where they will not be mingling with their old criminal associates, and that they will not return to their old ways as they walk through the prison gates,” the attorney general said.

Earlier this week, a federal judge in New York said the virus posed a “grave danger” to inmates in jails and prisons and urged government officials to take “swift” action to reduce the hazard to the most vulnerable.

“The dangers of the moment … call for more systemic action than a judge can grant in any one case,” Manhattan U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman wrote. “There are many cases when temporary release of an inmate would be the rational and just course of action, but the law does not give a judge the authority to take it.”

Furman’s comments were contained in an order denying release of a former Staten Island doctor, Nkanga Nkanga, who pleaded guilty last fall to prescribing opioids for no legitimate medical need.

According to court documents, Nkanga suffers from asthma and complications from a stroke.

Last week, Barr had directed federal prison authorities to begin identifying more elderly and medically compromised inmates for home confinement to avoid a larger outbreak of the coronavirus inside the agency’s 122 institutions.

“While the BOP has taken extensive precautions to prevent COVID-19 from entering its facilities and infecting our inmates, those precautions, like any precautions, have not been perfectly successful at all institutions,” the attorney general wrote Friday.


©2020 USA Today

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