As COVID-19 continues to spread across the U.S., local, state, and federal authorities grapple with the increasing infection rate amongst inmates who are incarcerated. As of April 20, 2020, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) reported that 497 federal inmates and 319 BOP staff had tested positive for COVID-19.
In mid-March, authorities at correctional institutions began implementing measures to mitigate the risk of infection for inmates and correctional staff. Some of those efforts included early release for inmates who were nearing their sentence, are elderly, have chronic illnesses, or are being held on low bail amounts. These policies have already been implemented across many local correctional facilities. For example, in California, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department released 300 inmates from county jail on April 15th.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, prisons have been slower at making policy changes and arranging the release of prisoners. But, despite the delays, some state prisons have already reported that they have released inmates. For example, 1,167 inmates held within the Washington Department of Corrections will be released within the next couple of days. On April 3rd, Attorney General William P. Barr, also expanded the release of inmates in federal correctional facilities where COVID-19 has spread (i.e. Louisiana, Connecticut, and Ohio). It is evident that some states and levels of government have taken a more proactive approach at protecting the vulnerable inmate population than others.
What does early release mean for the inmates? Will they have to return to prison? What about the safety of the community?
First, a review of the list compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, which provided details on the early release policies of some institutions, shows the majority of the inmates who have been or are being considered for early release are approaching the end of their sentence. These individuals will more than likely be placed in a community supervision program, such as probation or parole. Although, those programs have also been impacted by COVID-19. In some states, such as Louisiana, the Department of Corrections, has created furlough review panels that will consider granting non-violent/non-sex crime inmates who are within 6-months of their release temporary furloughs. In the West Virginia Divisions of Corrections and Rehabilitation, weekend furloughs for work-release inmates, have been extended to two weeks. Whether inmates will return to prison or whether they will be placed in a community supervision program will depend on state policies and their particular case (e.g. how long is left in their sentence, what type of crime they committed, etc.). Second, some news sources, such as CNN, have reported that the release of the low-level inmates has resulted in the re-incarceration of some inmates. In Florida, a man committed murder shortly after being released.
However, prosecutors and law enforcement officials are taking the necessary precautions to balance public health needs with the safety of the community by only releasing inmates who are at low risk of recidivism, such as non-violent offenders, the elderly or medically fragile, pre-trial detainees, and continuing to monitor them upon their release.
Instructors, click on the link below to download this week’s lecture for use in your classroom.
The deck contains a writing prompt, a debate question, as well as other assessment questions.
- Writing: Explain the ways in which authorities are balancing the needs of public health and the safety of the community.
- Debate: The decision to release inmates early is just, as inmates are a vulnerable population that also needs to be protected.
- Poll: Do you believe that local, state, and federal authorities are releasing enough inmates, or should they consider expanding eligibility criteria?
- Short Answer: What criteria are states using to determine who is eligible for early release?
Credit Line: istockphoto.com/Valerii Evlakhov