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ACLU Calls on Attorney General Barr to Release Prisoners in Time of Pandemic


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called on Attorney General William Barr and Bureau of Prisons Director (BOP) Michael Carvajal to combat the spread of the new COVID-19 coronavirus by decreasing the number of prisoners held in federal prison, calling for the immediate release of those most vulnerable to the virus.

“The public health crisis presented by coronavirus highlights the need for the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to take immediate action to safeguard the health of those under its care,” the civil rights organization said Wednesday. “Time is of the essence and the BOP must act swiftly and responsibly to ensure that the 122 facilities in its system housing nearly a quarter of a million people, over 10,000 of whom are over 60 years old, are safe. BOP must act in conjunction with U.S. Attorneys and the recommendations of public health professionals to release those most vulnerable to coronavirus and to diminish intake of others to reduce overcrowding.”

The ACLU’s call echoes that of healthcare professionals worldwide, many of whom have noted that prisons and jails pose an acute threat to inmates, corrections officers, and the general population.

“Unless government officials act now, the novel coronavirus will spread rapidly in our jails and prisons, endangering not only prisoners and corrections workers but the general public as well,” Josiah Rich, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University, wrote in The Washington Post. “As the country prepares for further spread of the pandemic, authorities should take immediate steps to limit the risk posed by mass confinement, including releasing those detained on bail, along with elderly prisoners who pose little danger to the public.”

Rich noted that these institutions are ideal incubators for the highly contagious airborne virus, and while physically secure, the facilities are still primed to play a significant role in spreading the contagion.

“Even if this flow is limited to the extent possible, correctional facilities remain densely populated and poorly designed to prevent the inevitable rapid and widespread dissemination of this virus,” he continued. “We justify locking people up to protect public safety. Yet public safety will be at even greater peril if we fail to mitigate risks associated with confining too many people in jails, prisons and detention facilities during a pandemic.”

The threat of the virus spreading within jails in prisons has only increased.

Some local authorities are taking decisive action.

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in an attempt to secure the release of “at risk” undocumented immigrant detainees.

[image via BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.