Releasing Inmates Because of Coronavirus

By Faye Higbee

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley advanced an idea on March 14 that seemed crazy on the surface: since prisoners are vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus, why not commute all their sentences and let them all out? Releasing inmates is not a popular stance.

Pressley didn’t clarify her big plan for releasing inmates, whether it was just for nonviolent offenders or every inmate. In the past she and the Squad have advocated ALL prisoners be released (that whole “mass incarceration” argument). While the initial reaction is that she’s out-to-lunch, some jail managers truly are struggling to know how to handle having too many inmates with a contagious disease.

Cuyahoga County jail in Ohio is one case in point. They have plans to release up to 300 inmates in anticipation of the coronavirus sweeping through their facility. But it’s not a blanket approach and it is as gradual as they can make it.

News5 Cleveland reported:

The Cuyahoga County Jail is now working toward releasing up to 300 non-violent defendants over the next few weeks, in an effort to reduce coronavirus risk.

Cuyahoga Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan told News 5 it’s crucial that the current jail population of 1900 be reduced to avoid to the potential for a medical emergency.

Sheehan said the court is responding by holding hearings on the weekend, some judges are tripling their dockets, hoping to get more cases through the system and settled.

Sheehan said the effort will not jeopardize public safety, while protecting the well-being of inmates, and court and jail employees.

“We don’t want the public to panic, this is not like the jail is opening the door and everyone is running out,” Sheehan said.

“People who deserve to go to prison are going to go to prison, people who deserve a second chance, we’re giving them a chance to get second chances.”

The County is also trying to get violent offenders moved into state facilities more quickly.

“If it hits right now, the sheriff is going to be crippled, and he’s going to be looking at me and saying we’ve got to order people out of jail. At least now we’re doing it in a systematic approach and Judges are able to use their discretion.” Judge Brendan Sheehan

As the virus stomps across the US, other jails may find themselves in serious jeopardy as well.  If a criminal has a temperature, they likely won’t be let into a facility. What to do with them is always a question.

Pressley, who in the past along with “Squad” member AOC, has pushed the idea of getting rid of “mass incarceration” by releasing inmates, all of them. At least Cuyahoga County has a logical approach to the situation. Pressley, not so much.

Elsewhere in the world, inmates in dire straits

Iran claims to have released 85,000 prisoners due to the virus, according to Fox. Outside humanitarian agencies say that the death toll in Iran’s prisons could be upwards of 1,000. But at least one prisoner disputes the government’s official figures:

“The situation here is that really we’re all ill, we are all having dry cough. We have a fever. There is no test kit for coronavirus or any test kits available. All we can do is try to reach the clinic by pushing and shoving. And once there, the guards tell us there is no doctor or that the doctor is not coming, return to your ward or we will use force. If by chance, we happen to find a doctor, all they do is to aim their digital thermometer at us, without even approaching us…Only the prisoners who spy on other prisoners were given a furlough and their number does not exceed 10 people. The rest stay here in prisons on different pretexts. It seems that those whom the regime was unable to kill during November uprisings are being liquidated in the prison by coronavirus. They can eliminate whoever they choose, under the guise that the prisoner has contracted coronavirus, and the prisoner is taken away without anyone knowing about his whereabouts.” Meqad, Iranian inmate

And that is what happens in totalitarian countries. Their definition of releasing inmates is seriously different than ours. People just disappear and it can be blamed on a “virus” or whatever else might be happening.

The fact remains that prisons can become hotbeds of disease during an epidemic. Not just prisoners are at risk but jail staff as well.

Featured photo: screenshot via msnbc


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