COVID-19 and Prisons: How releasing non-violent offenders might help

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Birmingham, Ala. (WIAT)–The Alabama Department of Corrections announced new measures to address COVID-19 at their facilities. Two employees with the ADOC have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 20th. One COVID-19 case at Staton Correctional Facility was verified on March 30th. The other case was in an employee at St. Clair Correctional Facility. According to ADOC “as of 5PM on April 1, 2020…ADOC does not have any confirmed cases of COVID-19 among our inmate population.”

Tuesday the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced it will begin confining federal inmates to their cells for 14 days to address exposure to the coronavirus. According to CBS News 29 federal inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 AND 30 Staff members have tested positive for the virus. The Bureau of Prisons has had two deaths inside their facilities, both occurred at FCI Oakdale in Louisiana.

“Something like this really brings home the fact that we are all in this together. The virus doesn’t care if you are a prisoner or staff member. The virus doesn’t stop at the prison gates.” said David Fathi, Director of the ACLU National Prison Project. According to Fathi “prisons are essentially the perfect environment for rapid spread and maximum damage done by the COVID-19 virus.”

There is a very real fear from family members, corrections workers, and inmates alike about adequate measures being taken for protection from COVID-19. Concerns about cleanliness, access to soap and sanitizing materials for their surroundings are compounded by frustrations that CDC recommended social distancing of at least 6 feet is nearly impossible.

An inmate at Alabama’s Donaldson Correctional Facility who contacted CBS 42 sent pictures of his jail cell. He said “we can not be 6 feet apart if I can reach down and touch my bunk mate. The cells are only 6×8.” Another inmate at the same facility said “as far the inmates go we have been given nothing to sanitize this place with.” Then there is the question of soap for cleanliness. The first inmate said “if you need some good soap you’re going to have to buy that off the stores, especially when people aren’t working right now. We need bleach, we need alcohol we need stuff like that”

According to the ACLU, “Alabama prisons are the most crowded prisons in the United States. The Alabama prison system is now at about 170 percent of it’s design capacity.”

On April 1, 2020 the Alabama Department of Corrections announced “new preventative measures that are in place and further measures in the process of being implemented” Among them:

Preventative Measures under Review/in Progress

The ADOC is exploring the possibility of contract and community partnerships with various groups in order to obtain additional hygeine supplie that could be distributred to our inamte population-these discussions are currently in progress.

The ADOC is investigating options to purchase hand-washing stations for staff, which would be installed at strategic locations throughout correctional facilities.

Any inoperable sinks and toilets across the correctional system are in the process of being repaired.

ADOC COVID-19 Update-April 1, 2020

The ACLU is recommending reducing prison populations to protect inmates, workers, the families of workers and ultimately the community. Fathi said, “social distancing is impossible, adequate hygiene is impossible, so what we are saying and what public health is saying is you have to reduce the population. You have to let people out to reduce the population in the facilities to stop or at least slow the spread of the virus.”

As for how that would work Fathi said, “every prison system holds a number of offenders who are low-level, non violent offenders. It also holds a number of people who are so elderly or disabled they don’t present any threat to the population. No one is talking about throwing the gates open and letting people out indiscriminately. But every prison system has a significant number of people who could be let out without any risk to public safety. and indeed reducing the population density in the prisons (and) slowing the spread of the virus in fact protects public safety “

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