The virus is spreading quickly in America’s jails and prisons, where social distancing is impossible and sanitizer is widely banned, prompting authorities across the country to release thousands of inmates to try to slow the infection and save lives.
By Sunday, the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City had at least 139 confirmed cases of the virus. A week ago, the Cook County jail in Chicago had two diagnoses; by Sunday, 101 inmates and a dozen sheriff’s deputies had tested positive. And at least 38 inmates and employees in the federal prison system have the virus, with one prisoner dead in Louisiana.
“It’s very concerning as a parent,” said William Brewer Jr., whose son is serving time for robbery in Virginia. “He’s in there sleeping in an open bay with 60 other people. There’s no way they can isolate and get six feet between each other.”
Defense lawyers, elected officials, health experts and even some prosecutors have warned that efforts to release inmates and stop the spread are moving too slowly in the face of a contagion that has so far infected more than 142,000 people in the United States, with more than 2,300 deaths.
“By keeping more people in the jails, you are increasing the overall number of people who contract the virus,” and the demand for hospital beds, ventilators and other lifesaving resources, said David E. Patton, head of the federal public defender’s office in New York City, which represents nearly half of the 2,500 inmates in the city’s two federal jails. “They are playing roulette with people’s lives.”
Rikers Island, in New York, has provided a case study in the difficulty of balancing public safety and public health concerns. On Sunday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said about 650 people had been released. Still, the rate of infection in the city’s jails has continued to climb, and by Monday, 167 inmates, 114 correction staff and 23 health workers had tested positive. Two correction staff members have died and a handful of inmates have been hospitalized.