Opinion: U.S. prisons recklessly release prisoners instead of enforcing sanitation practices recommended by the CDC

Government leaders and law enforcement agencies have limited arrests and released prisoners as a result of the current health crisis. This lazy and reckless reaction overlooks more reasonable options for keeping COVID-19 away from correctional facilities.

Gov. Ralph Northam encouraged law enforcement officers as well as commonwealth attorneys to reduce jail populations by considering arrest alternatives and releasing low risk offenders, according to virginia.gov.

“Thousands of inmates are being released from detention, in some cases with little or no medical screening to determine if they may be infected by the coronavirus and at risk of spreading it into the community,” according to Reuters.

At least 16 states encouraged or enacted inmate releases and limited arrests to reduce prison populations, according to the Wall Street Journal. More state and local governments will likely follow. Other countries have also taken similar measures, including Iran who released at least 85,000 prisoners since their outbreak began, according to Business Insider.

Fear, not caution, instigated these changes.

The rationale behind concern for prison populations is that they make fertile petri dishes for infections, not unlike the environments of nursing homes and community-style dorms.

By decreasing new inmates, infections are less likely to be introduced. And with lower prison populations, authorities have more space to enforce social distancing and quarantine those who need it. According to the New York Post and petitioners in Washington state, packed prisons with shared bathrooms and living spaces make social distancing and proper quarantines impossible.

Prisons and nursing homes do have similarities in how they might be handled to slow the spread of coronavirus, but their day-to-day operations make the two dramatically distinguishable.

Prisons and jails have controlled environments. Security filters everything that goes in and out of these facilities. Their existing system easily allows them to include proper screening and quarantine processes.

Unlike nursing home residents, most inmates are not especially at risk of severe illness.

Like nursing homes, inmates should have sanitary environments and a means to protect themselves such as masks and gloves. This has not been the case. According to Reuters, one inmate at New York’s Rikers Island, which is undergoing a COVID-19 outbreak, has nothing but a t-shirt to protect himself from the virus when he leaves his cell.

According to the New York Post, New York Gov.r Andrew Cuomo ordered the release of 1,100 inmates from facilities around the state, 400 of whom will come out of New York City.

The solution to this problem should not be to send potentially infected prisoners into their communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week published a lengthy document specifically for correctional facilities. The document can be summarized into three steps: clean, screen and quarantine.

Nowhere in the document do they suggest freeing space by releasing prisoners or limiting arrests, but they do recommend reducing visits and programs that involve inmates leaving and returning to the facility. Several reports, including a report by Human Rights Watch and one by the New York state Commission of Correction on Rikers Island, describe the prisons they investigated as dirty or unsanitary.

With the exception of North Carolina, neither Virginia nor its surrounding states have known cases of COVID-19 within their correctional facilities.

Observers should be alarmed that leaders like Cuomo and Northam suggest publicly limiting arrests without prior enforcement of proper sanitation practices.

With such control over who is where and when and a substantially available labor force (i.e. the inmates) to regularly clean commonly touched surfaces, prisons have little excuse to seek such rash options for spread reduction.

If correctional authorities were doing their jobs correctly, coronavirus would never have entered their facilities.

And when authorities do make releases, leaders like Northam should focus on screening those who leave these unsanitary facilities. No mention of this has been made, though the CDC recommended it.

The New York press has not reported any screening being applied to released prisoners. New York’s releases, according to the New York Post, will all focus on “low-level technical violations.” Other leaders’ recommendations, including Northam’s, include even more ambiguity, which raises concerns as to who will be deciding on who gets released and why.

Many Americans have differing opinions on what should constitute an imprisonable offense. So, based on whose opinion will authorities make decisions on who should be released?

Certainly our prisons hold a number of people who perhaps do not deserve to be in those circumstances, but that is a debate to be had without the influence of a health crisis. COVID-19 is an inappropriate means to release a non-violent drug addict or even a person who was wrongfully imprisoned. 

Dykstra is an opinion writer. Follow his work on WordPress.

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