Through the news and social media, there’s been endless discussions and debates about social distancing and safety in workplaces, hospitals, schools, and grocery stores. But there’s one place that not many have considered amid the coronavirus pandemic: prisons.
Yet it’s an issue that demands attention, especially for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and other government officials. As the pandemic enters another month of social distancing guidelines seeking to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus, governments have important decisions to make regarding their prison populations.
Hundreds of Rikers Island Inmates Released
In an extraordinary move, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio recently released more than 300 inmates from Rikers Island prison and other city facilities. The inmates selected for release were all serving less than yearlong sentences for non-violent felonies or misdemeanors.
“Some have many months, some have only a few months, some have only weeks, but I’m going to treat this category across the board,” de Blasio explained in a statement. “We will move to release those 300 inmates immediately.” As of March 29, this number increased to 650 people.
De Blasio’s decision wasn’t based on good behavior or overcrowding, but rather on a mission to stop the spread of coronavirus through New York’s prison system. As of March 22, more than 45 cases had already been confirmed in the city’s prisons, including 17 staffers and 29 inmates. By March 29, that number had risen to 139 confirmed cases. As the Board of Correction interim chairwoman Jacqueline Sherman warned, the number of coronavirus cases in prisons “is certain to rise exponentially.”
“It is likely these people have been in hundreds of housing areas and common areas over recent weeks and have been in close contact with many other people in custody and staff,” Sherman explained. This is why de Blasio answered the Legal Aid Society’s pleas to cut loose vulnerable inmates serving time for non-violent crimes.
Other Cities Follow NYC’s Example
Given that social distancing is nearly impossible inside prisons and hand sanitizer is a banned product, other areas of the country are following Mayor de Blasio’s example and releasing inmates to slow the spread of the infection and preserve precious medical resources.
In Cleveland, Ohio, for example, nearly half of the county jail population has been released. This cut the number of prisoners from 2,000 to 1,000 since March 12. It’s a careful balancing act of the law and public health. “I don’t want people to think that we’re opening up the jail doors and letting people go,” Judge Brendan J. Sheehan explained to the New York Times. “We have to protect the public, and we also have to protect the safety of the inmates.”
Los Angeles County is taking the same actions, releasing about 10 percent of its prison population. This is especially significant since Los Angeles County is one of the nation’s largest jailing systems. According to Sheriff Alex Villanueva, all freed inmates had already been scheduled for release within 30 days, and all had been convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors.
As the coronavirus pandemic progresses, one thing is for sure: leaders across the country are using creative problem solving and collaboration to solve unprecedented challenges.