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Officials worry that COVID-based prison releases pose danger for communities

Randy Mancini 15 December 16, 2020

In this April 16, 2020, photo a gloved hand points to a holding cell at the hospital ward of the Twin Towers jail in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

The American Civil Liberties Union has called for the release of thousands of at-risk inmates amid a surge in coronavirus cases throughout the nation’s prison system. However, legislators and law enforcement are pushing back against mass inmate releases, citing the dangers many prisoners pose to society.

One California sheriff has been fighting a mandate brought by the ACLU, which has proposed the release of more than 1,800 inmates. This is a move Sheriff Don Barnes called ”absurd.”

“Of just those who are medically vulnerable based on CDC guidelines, that’s 700 inmates in our care,” Barnes noted. “There are 59 of them in for murder, another 39 for attempted murder and 90 of them in for child molestation.”

Barnes plans to appeal the order, citing 1,400 low-level inmates were already released from the prison this year. He also pointed out that the only ones left to release are murderers and child molesters. Many inmates have reportedly begun filing complaints through their attorneys, alleging the prison staff enforces little to no COVID-19 safety procedures within the facilities.

Correctional institutions have served as breeding grounds for the virus since the pandemic began. Small communal areas, poor ventilation and overcrowding all being strong contributing factors.

In November, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Md.) ordered the release of eligible inmates who had four or less months left on their sentence, or who were incarcerated for non-violent or non-sexual related crimes. The order also mandated the accelerated parole of well-behaving inmates aged 60 or older, or those who have pre-existing conditions.

Hogan’s decision was hailed as a win for civil rights activists, who had been reportedly lobbying to prioritize the release of those who were “vulnerable for medical reasons.”

The ACLU also pointed to the outbreak, which occurred in a California prison in July, leading to a court order mandating the immediate release of half of the inmate population at the San Quentin State Prison. The court ruling said the California Department of Corrections is in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

“The idea of letting people out of prison is often something that people find to be really radical and its actually not,” said public defender Danica Rodarmel. “These are human beings who are being held in ways that are unsafe and unhealthy…not only for them, but for the people that work in the prisons as well.”

Despite the criticism of the California prison, state officials argue the Corrections Department acted accordingly and took extensive action in response to the pandemic.

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