Widespread COVID-19 Threats Faced by Jails and Prisons Across the Country

As the global pandemic affects daily life worldwide, both national and state governments are trying to come to terms with COVID-19 threats to inmates and corrections staff in America’s jails and prisons.

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which runs the 122 federal corrections facilities nationwide last year holding about 220,000 inmates, or about 10% of the nation’s total of over 2.2 million, announced on March 13 that, for at least 30 days, social and volunteer visitors would not be allowed. The same was true for most legal representatives (those admitted must undergo the same screening process as facility staff). As a partial offset to visitor suspension, however, the limit on an inmate’s monthly time allowed on a prison’s telephone system was raised from 300 to 500 minutes. All newly arriving inmates will be screened for coronavirus.

Further, BOP staff travel (except for relocation) and training (except for new staff basic training) will be suspended. Inmate transfers will generally stop, except for those related to judicial proceedings, medical or mental health, residential center placements, interstate detainer agreements, and forensic studies.

State prisons and local jails, which by far hold the majority of the nation’s inmates, are facing the same issues, but have reached widely divergent decisions on their responses. Some states and localities have already begun to remove from their prisons and jails some inmates they claim are particularly endangered by the virus and are not serving time for violent crimes. But others, like Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R), reject such requests, describing inmates in that state as “better off where they are.”

For various reasons, corrections facilities pose a particularly worrisome setting for preventing spread of the COVID-19 infection. Older persons have been designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as especially vulnerable to the pandemic, and about 20% of federal prisoners are over age 50. Epidemiologists warn social isolation is needed to retard the spread of the new virus, while conditions in most corrections facilities feature crowded spaces and mass gatherings, such as for meals and recreation. And few prisons and jails are renowned for the quality of health care they provide.

COVID-19 Threats to Inmates Beyond their Health

In addition, the stress of the COVID-19 threats to health and its effects on incarceration conditions could weaken order and discipline. Italy saw widespread prisoner rioting and some escapes over handling of the widespread coronavirus infections there.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) and BOP have received letters from civil liberties groups – such as the American Civil Liberties Union and over a dozen of its state affiliates — requesting the release of federal inmates who, because of their age or health conditions, are particularly at risk to the new virus. Similarly, some members of Congress are advocating such steps. And a prison workers’ union has called for greater use of “compassionate release” to curb overcrowding in BOP facilities.

COVID-19 threats has also prompted some high-profile federal inmates – among them Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff, short-time White House communicator and attempted Nike extortionist Michael Avenatti, and ex-Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen — to seek court orders for their release from incarceration. As of late March, DOJ and BOP hadn’t responded publicly to those requests.


About the Author

Covid-19 threats to inmates

Scott J. Limmer is a New York criminal attorney practicing primarily in Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens counties. You can contact Scott anytime. He is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year-round and your initial consultation is free.

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