The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The early release of incarcerated people may look like clemency. But it can endanger lives.

Protesters outside the Marion Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio on May 2. (Megan Jelinger/AFP/Getty Images)

Bree Barton is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.

Four weeks ago, without notice or explanation, a Dallas County jail released a group of inmates, including a 60-year-old homeless man with an addiction disorder who was awaiting substance-abuse treatment. That man was my uncle.

When my uncle walked out of jail, he did not go home, because he doesn’t have one. With no phone or computer, he was untraceable. Neither his blindsided defense lawyer nor employees at shelters where he had stayed in the past had anything to tell us. We didn’t know whether he had been tested for covid-19. We didn’t know whether he was alive or dead.

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My uncle’s release was not unique. Many jails, facing intense scrutiny and growing concern over incarcerated people’s risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus, have released some nonviolent offenders. This move has evoked strong, often angry responses from governors, judges and police officers concerned about the effects on prison populations and society at large. Not to mention the more personal implications: A recent New York Times article highlighted a woman’s outrage after the man accused of the hit-and-run that killed her daughter had been released from a virus-threatened St. Louis jail.

On the surface, the early release of incarcerated people may look like humanity, like clemency — at least for those inmates who have homes to go to. Look deeper, though, and the motivations become less clear and the consequences less benign. Research shows that formerly incarcerated people are almost 10 times more likely to be homeless than the general public, and predicts that “homeless individuals infected by COVID-19 would be twice as likely to be hospitalized, two to four times as likely to require critical care, and two to three times as likely to die than the general population.”

To release a vulnerable population (incarcerated people) into a vulnerable situation (homelessness) is, at best, misguided; at worst, dangerous. Though incarcerated Americans lack some of the rights held by most citizens, they are protected by the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, a term that can include “deliberate indifference.” A few days after my uncle’s release, for example, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered a D.C. jail to overhaul its medical care, cleaning and social distancing measures to reverse what appeared to be the city’s “deliberate indifference” to the health of its incarcerated population.

When my uncle and his fellow inmates were led out on a chain and handed their modified probation papers, did the jail take into account that, six days earlier, 22 inmates in Dallas County and 12 sheriff’s office employees tested positive for the virus? Were the men told where they could be tested for covid-19? Were they directed to area shelters — the ones that hadn’t already closed their doors? Not that we know. In the current global circumstances, the failure to do those things would look very much like “deliberate indifference.”

Imagine you're a public defender in a criminal-justice system that penalizes people who want their day in court. What do you do? (Video: Danielle Kunitz, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

My uncle was released, we eventually figured out, because he was considered “medically high-risk” for the coronavirus. Five years ago, he was hospitalized for tuberculosis; decades of addiction have ravaged both his body and his mind. He is mentally ill and has made multiple suicide attempts. He is also a gifted artist, and was once a carpenter. When I visited him in jail in February, he showed me some of his whimsical cartoons, telling me his fellow inmates often asked him to draw people they missed.

Until his unexpected release, my uncle had been in jail for 11 months, waiting for a bed to open up at a substance abuse felony punishment facility, where he would take part in a court-mandated six-month treatment program, followed by up to three months in a transitional treatment center, six to nine months of outpatient aftercare and up to 12 months of support groups and follow-up supervision. But amid covid-19, the substance-abuse facility sealed its doors, and the waiting list for its lifesaving program was wiped clean.

My uncle was released at 2:15 p.m. on April 13. After more than three weeks of searching, my mother finally found him. He was in an alley behind a grocery store, thin and unshaven, a dirty face mask sagging beneath his chin. He was living under a bridge, using his SNAP card to buy cooking sherry, his drug of choice. My mother couldn’t hug her little brother, because she didn’t know whether he was sick. She and I have pieced together what we know of his release from a few Dallas County employees speaking off the record.

The Opinions section is looking for stories of how the coronavirus has affected people of all walks of life. Write to us.

The pandemic is shining a spotlight on people who are highly vulnerable — not just to the virus, but to the broader social injustices that greatly increase the chance of contracting and dying from it.

By washing its hands of my uncle in the name of risk avoidance, the criminal justice system has delivered him straight back to the life-and-death risks that too many Americans face every day.

Read more:

Radley Balko: Stopping covid-19 behind bars was an achievable moral imperative. We failed.

Jody Kent Lavy and Silas Horst: Covid-19 is spreading in jails. Here’s how to safely release those inmates convicted as children.

The Post’s View: America’s 2.3 million prisoners are sitting ducks for this virus. Here’s how to save them.

Lisa Freeland, David Patton and Jon Sands: We’ll see many more covid-19 deaths in prisons if Barr and Congress don’t act now

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