Advocates in the District, Maryland and Virginia are calling on officials to swiftly release as many prisoners as possible to prevent an outbreak of coronavirus in the region’s jail cells.
Officials with the District’s Public Defender Service on Saturday issued a statement calling for the release of eligible D.C. jail inmates following reports that four prisoners had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Days before, groups including the Maryland Prisoners’ Rights Coalition wrote to Gov. Larry Hogan (R) urging him to expedite the release of prisoners whose sentences will soon expire, as well as those serving short sentences.
On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia plans to send a similar letter to Gov. Ralph Northam (D) demanding he reduce prisoner intake, free those whose sentences are due to end next year and release “vulnerable people” — meaning the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. As of Sunday afternoon, no virus cases had been reported in Maryland or Virginia jails.
“Carceral facilities make social distancing impossible and are not built or prepared to fulfill the medical needs associated with covid-19,” the illness caused by the virus, Virginia ACLU executive director Claire G. Gastañaga wrote in the letter, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post.
It is a problem facing jails nationwide, as the virus continues its steady march of infection across the country. Health officials have warned that cells — which house so many people, so close together — essentially function as perfect incubators for the virus. Over the past two weeks, with detention facilities throughout the country beginning to report their first cases, some state and local officials have responded by freeing inmates early and encouraging fewer arrests.
The Public Defender Service has been concerned for a while that conditions at the D.C. jail would foster the spread of the virus, the service’s special counsel Janet Mitchell said Sunday.
“We see cautionary tales from other jurisdictions and want to avoid being the next Rikers,” Mitchell said, referring to the New York jail where dozens have tested positive. “We are asking all the stakeholders to take action now and to start releasing as many persons as possible as quickly as possible.”
Mitchell suggested setting free “at minimum” those who are serving misdemeanor sentences, or awaiting trial on misdemeanors. She also urged judges who previously denied bond review motions — citing the then-absence of coronavirus cases within D.C. jails — to reverse their decisions.
Authorities announced the diagnosis of the first reported case in the District’s jail system, a 20-year-old, on Wednesday. Two days later, authorities said that a 44-year-old man housed in the Correctional Treatment Facility — the same facility that held the 20-year-old, although the two inmates were not in the same unit — had also tested positive.
Late Saturday, jail officials announced the diagnosis of two more inmates, a 37-year-old and a 38-year-old both housed in the same treatment facility as the first two patients. The 37-year-old and 38-year-old are being treated and have been isolated from other inmates, according to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Keena Black.
In the letter to Northam — which also included a draft of an executive order he could sign, fulfilling activists’ requests — Gastañaga noted that the spread of the virus in the state’s jail system would disproportionately affect people of color, who are overrepresented in America’s prisons. Black people make up 19 percent of Virginia’s overall population, she wrote, but 58 percent of the state’s incarcerated population.
Making matters worse, Gastañaga wrote, people of color are also more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease and respiratory disease, all conditions that health officials believe increase an individual’s risk of contracting and dying from coronavirus.
If the virus finds its way into the state’s jail system, she warned, the consequences will be horrifying.
“The time for action is now,” Gastañaga wrote. “This pandemic is here, and it will — if it hasn’t already — make its way into our custodial facilities.”
Ovetta Wiggins and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this post misspelled the last name of the executive director of the Virginia ACLU. It is Claire G. Gastañaga.