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R.I. Supreme Court approves releasing 52 inmates to lessen coronavirus risk

The public defender’s office had filed an emergency petition asking the court to release inmates with sentences due to expire within 90 days

The Licht Judicial Complex, the state courthouse in Providence.
The Licht Judicial Complex, the state courthouse in Providence.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Supreme Court on Friday approved the release of 52 inmates to ease crowded conditions in prison amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The Rhode Island Public Defender’s office had filed an emergency petition asking the state’s high court to order the release of inmates whose sentences are due to expire within 90 days, arguing that it would lessen the health risk for inmates, correctional officers, and the public.

Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office opposed the release of any inmates convicted of violent offenses, including murder, manslaughter, and domestic violence offenses, but it did not object to the release of certain nonviolent offenders and drug offenders.

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Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the state Department of Health, supported release of the inmates to ease crowding, “provided that any individuals must be released into a stable setting where they will be able to quarantine for a full 14-day period.”

Dr. Jennifer Clarke, medical program director at the state’s Adult Correctional Institutions, supported the proposal, saying, “The fewer inmates the ACI maintains in a congregate living environment, the safer the inmates are from a COVID-19 outbreak within the secured facilities.”

On Friday, the public defender’s office, attorney general’s office, and the Department of Corrections submitted a list of 52 inmates identified as being appropriate for immediate release. That list superseded a previous list of 76 inmates.

After a series of video conferences, the Supreme Court ordered the Superior and District courts to hold expedited hearings to reduce the sentences of those defendants so they could be released right away. The list includes inmates who had been convicted of crimes such as larceny, shoplifting, and drug possession.

No inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Friday, but two correctional officers have tested positive, according to J.R. Ventura, spokesman for the state Corrections Department.

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A correctional officer at the Intake Service Center displayed symptoms last Wednesday, and any officers who had contact with that officer were sent home, Ventura said. Test results for that officer came back positive on Saturday, and this week one of the officers who had been sent home tested positive for the coronavirus, he said.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com