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COVID-19 Shouldn’t Be a Death Sentence for People in US Prisons

Attorney General Should Speed Up Compassionate and Other Releases

Attorney General William Barr speaks during a tour of a federal prison in Edgefield, South Carolina, July 8, 2019. © 2019 AP Photo/John Bazemore

Five deaths from COVID-19 in a United States federal prison in Louisiana were reported within the past week, which suggests more needs to be done to protect people in custody.

Even before reports of infections at US detention facilities had surfaced, Human Rights Watch had warned about the particular vulnerability of people behind bars, and urged officials to consider supervised release and other non-custodial measures, especially for those more vulnerable to serious effects from COVID-19.

Last week, US Attorney General William Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons to expand the use of home confinement, though he hasn’t made clear how far this expansion will go or how many people it will affect. While encouraged by Barr’s announcement, federal public and community defenders wrote to Barr objecting that his order “erects unnecessary barriers” and sets “arbitrary criteria” for deciding who can access home confinement. For example, the Bureau will use an algorithmic assessment tool that carries inherent racial and class bias to determine eligibility. Also, the Bureau will give lower priority to people deemed to have violated prison rules, such as smoking where prohibited or using abusive language.

The Bureau operates 122 prisons with nearly 175,000 people in custody. As of April 2, 75 people in Bureau custody and 39 staff had tested positive for COVID-19, up from 10 people in custody and eight staff on March 27. Other jails and prisons across the country are recording even higher numbers.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that people 65 and older and people with underlying medical conditions are particularly at risk of severe illness from COVID-19. About 10,000 individuals over the age of 60 are in Bureau custody and about a third of people in Bureau custody have what Barr called “pre-existing conditions.” For years, Human Rights Watch has urged federal authorities to expand provisions for compassionate release, which allows release for “extraordinary and compelling” reasons, to include older and seriously ill prisoners.

Federal prisons and immigration detention facilities are “breeding grounds” for uncontrolled transmission of COVID-19 and present “significant health risks” to the people in them and the community as a whole, public health experts recently warned.

As COVID-19 rapidly spreads, the attorney general should ensure necessary releases are carried out quickly and fairly.

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