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As COVID-19 Spreads, Calls Grow To Protect Inmates In Federal Prisons

The Federal Bureau of Prisons Correctional Complex in Butner, N.C, is pictured on April 1, 2014. Advocates are pushing for protections for vulnerable inmates amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Sara D. Davis
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The Federal Bureau of Prisons Correctional Complex in Butner, N.C, is pictured on April 1, 2014. Advocates are pushing for protections for vulnerable inmates amid the coronavirus pandemic.

As COVID-19 begins to hit jails and lockups around the country, the Trump administration is coming under growing pressure to release elderly and other particularly vulnerable inmates in the federal prison system to mitigate the risk of the virus' spread.

Already, three inmates and three staff at federal correctional facilities across the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In detention centers at the state and local level, including in New York City's jail system, confirmed cases of COVID-19 are on the rise.

At the federal level, there are more than 175,000 inmates housed in more than 100 facilities. They fall under the authority of the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons, and it's those federal inmates that the advocacy groups and lawmakers are appealing to the administration to help protect from the virus.

In a letter to the White House, nine advocacy groups on both sides of the political spectrum urge President Trump to use his clemency power to commute the federal sentences of people eligible for compassionate release and other inmates at high-risk from the virus.

"The public health concerns presented by coronavirus in confined spaces creates an urgent need to ensure the health of staff and those incarcerated, particularly those who are elderly and those with chronic health conditions," they write.

The groups that signed the letter include the American Civil Liberties Union, Justice Action Network and FreedomWorks.

A bipartisan group of 14 senators, led by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin and Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, is also calling for similar action from the administration.

In a letter to Attorney General William Barr and Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal, the lawmakers urge the Justice Department and the BOP to use their authority under the First Step Act to release or transfer to home confinement vulnerable inmates.

"Conditions of confinement do not afford individuals the opportunity to take proactive steps to protect themselves, and prisons often create the ideal environment for the transmission of contagious disease," they write.

"For these reasons, it is important that consistent with the law and taking into account public safety and health concerns, that the most vulnerable inmates are released or transferred to home confinement, if possible."

They urge the department to expand the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program to put older and terminally ill inmates in home confinement. They also call on the department to transfer nonviolent inmates susceptible to the virus to home confinement as well, when feasible.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.