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‘Jails are petri dishes’: inmates freed as the virus spreads behind bars

The coronavirus 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 in recent weeks to try to slow the infection, save lives, and preserve medical resources.

Hundreds of COVID-19 diagnoses have been confirmed at local, state, and federal correctional facilities — almost certainly an undercount given a lack of testing and the virus’s rapid spread — leading to hunger strikes in immigrant detention centers and demands for more protection from prison employee unions.

A week ago, the Cook County jail in Chicago had two diagnoses. By Sunday, 101 inmates and a dozen employees had tested positive for the virus. The Rikers Island jail complex in New York City had at least 139 confirmed cases. Michigan prisons reported 77 positive tests. And at least 38 inmates and employees in the federal prison system have the virus, with one prisoner dead in Louisiana.

Defense lawyers, elected officials, health specialists, and even some prosecutors have warned that efforts to release inmates and to contain the spread of the disease 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.

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“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.”

America has more people behind bars than any other nation. Its correctional facilities are frequently crowded and unsanitary, filled with an aging population of often impoverished people with a history of poor health care, many of whom suffer from respiratory problems and heart conditions. Practices urged elsewhere to slow the spread of the virus — avoiding crowds, frequent hand washing, disinfecting clothing — are nearly impossible to implement inside.

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The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which holds more than 167,000 people nationwide, has been criticized by its own employees as slow to act.

Attorney General William Barr said officials were trying to expand home confinement, as opposed to directly releasing federal prisoners, almost all of whom were convicted of felonies. He ordered an assessment of at-risk nonviolent inmates, particularly those who have served much of their sentence.

But it was unclear how many would qualify under a complex list of criteria. And Barr cautioned that the review would not result in immediate transfers because of the need to ensure that prisoners would not spread the virus once freed.

In Chicago, as the number of positive test results at the county jail have skyrocketed, Sheriff Tom Dart has established a quarantine area for those who have the virus and another one for those showing symptoms who have not tested positive but need to be monitored. The most serious patients are being taken to the hospital.

“Our jails are petri dishes,” said Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, comparing them to nursing homes or cruise ships — both places where the virus has spread rapidly.