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Get out of jail? Inmates fearful of virus argue for release

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Posted at 5:28 PM, Mar 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-18 17:28:42-04

NEW YORK (AP) — Coronavirus has become a “get out of jail" card for hundreds of low-level inmates across the country who argue that it’s not a matter of if, but when the deadly illness sweeps through tightly packed populations behind bars.

America’s nearly 7,000 jails, prisons and correction facilities are an ideal breeding ground for the virus, as dangerous as nursing homes and cruise ships but far less sanitary.

The Associated Press found that stepped-up cleanings and a temporary halt to visitations at many lockups across the country in the midst of the crisis can’t make up for the fact that ventilation behind bars is often poor, inmates sleep in close quarters and share a small number of bathrooms.

In Los Angeles, the nation’s largest jail system has trimmed its population by more than 600 since Feb. 28, allowing many inmates with fewer than 30 days left on their sentences to be released early.

In Cleveland, judges held a special session over the weekend to settle cases with guilty pleas and release more than 200 low-level, non-violent inmates.

And in Miami, the top state attorney has urged the release of all non-violent felons and those being held on misdemeanors.

Now, even hard-timers are seeking their freedom with the argument that it's not a matter of if but when the deadly illness sweeps through tightly packed populations behind bars.

Among those making pleas for compassionate release or home detention are the former head of the Cali drug cartel David Oscar Markus, Ponzi swindler Bernard Madoff, President Donald Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen and dozens of inmates at New York City’s Rikers Island, part of a jail system that lost a worker to the virus this week.

Madoff, who is serving a 150-year sentence in connection with a $17.5 billion Ponzi scheme, had just asked last month to be released early in light of his terminal kidney disease. Now his attorney is calling on all at-risk federal prisoners to be released for their own safety because of the coronavirus.

The Twitter account of Cohen, who is serving a three-year sentence for crimes including tax evasion and campaign finance violations, shared an online petition seeking the transfer of non-violent federal prisoners to home confinement.

Addressed specifically to Trump, the petition argues the move would “give the prison facilities additional (and much needed) medical triage and logistic space for those who will become infected.”

“Without your intervention, scores of non-violent offenders are at risk of death,” it reads, “and these people were not given a death sentence.”