The Only Way To Protect Elderly Prisoners From Coronavirus Is To Release Them

With an aging prison population in the midst of a global health crisis, it's time to prioritize early release for sick and elderly prisoners.

COVID-19 has officially entered the United States prison system. Prisoners and prison employees have tested positive for the coronavirus in Pennsylvania and Washington, and a police investigator in New York died from the virus on Sunday, according to the New York City Department of Corrections.

Public health officials have warned of the dangers of the coronavirus spreading in prisons and jails after more than 500 prisoners were infected in China on the onset of the outbreak last month, and now, correctional facilities in the U.S. are faced with the exact circumstances for which they are openly unprepared.

A major source of concern is the fastest-growing prison population in the United States: people over the age of 55. There are currently nearly 125,000 prisoners in this age group ― a number that has quadrupled in the last two decades. Of those prisoners, more than 26,000 are also over the age of 65. And many of them are in crowded facilities where it’s nearly impossible to practice the social distancing experts say is vital to slow the spread of the virus.

Given the mortal threat to many of these elderly prisoners, an idea that may have seemed radical only weeks ago is now being considered: Just release them.

“We have an opportunity to get a lot of these people out of prisons.”

- Dr. Josiah Rich, Brown University

Compassionate release ― the release of prisoners who have developed “extraordinary and compelling” reasons to be released before they’ve formally served their time — happens already, but it’s rare. Typically, compassionate release is granted in cases of terminal illness or old age, but exceptionally few cases ― just 6% ― are actually approved.

Experts say the doors need to be opened, and now, to avoid mass death inside U.S. prisons and jails.

“We have an aging, highly susceptible population that we’re keeping incarcerated,” Dr. Josiah Rich, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University in Rhode Island, told HuffPost. Rich works in the Rhode Island correctional system, researching infectious disease and providing medical care for HIV-positive inmates and inmates with addiction issues.

“Biological age is one thing,” he said, “but these are people who have had a lot of struggles. They have the burden of disease of a population that’s about 10 years older … Not only are they aging, and that’s a risk factor, but other diseases put them at a higher risk of disease outcomes. It’s a very unhealthy population.”

It is precisely this demographic of older and immunocompromised people who are most likely to die of COVID-19.

Because of this, Rich believes that Iran, which released nearly 54,000 incarcerated people earlier this month, had the right idea.

“It’s very clear that the people that are sick and older are at the lowest risk of trouble when they get out if they have enough support,” he said. “We have an opportunity to get a lot of these people out of prisons.”

Judges in Ohio are already taking steps to make this happen. The Cuyahoga County Court held a special hearing on Saturday morning to decide how to best move forward with guilty pleas, and whether to release the most vulnerable (and least dangerous) inmates.

A Growing Geriatric Prison Population

In 1993, there were 26,300 prisoners over the age of 55, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. By 2013, there were over 130,000.

That’s an increase of 400%.

This tremendous spike in older and elderly prisoners is the result of harsh sentencing laws passed in the 1990s. Mandatory minimums have resulted in decadeslong sentences and overcrowding in America’s jails and prisons.

During a public health crisis, mandatory minimums can be a death sentence for that fast-growing population of prisoners over the age of 55. In fact, between the years of 2001 and 2007 alone, nearly 8,500 people over the age of 55 died behind bars.

Now, when the best way to combat the spread of infectious disease is through preventive health care measures, good hygiene and social distancing ― all tough thing to achieve in an overcrowded prison ― advocates are concerned that correctional departments won’t act fast enough to halt the spread of COVID-19 among the most vulnerable prison population.

Compassionate Release And COVID-19

Requesting and securing compassionate release is normally a monthslong process, at the very least.

Prisoners and their families are often unaware that this is an option in the first place, and when they do inquire about the process, they are often met with “walls of ignorance or silence or hostility and unkindness,” said Mary Price, the general counsel of FAMM, a criminal justice reform organization.

Before the First Step Act passed in 2018, compassionate release functioned through the Federal Bureau of Prisons ― a “toxic set of circumstances,” according to Price. But the First Step Act changed the process by which incarcerated people can request compassionate release, namely by allowing prisoners to file their own motions directly to their district courts.

Police stormed a demonstration near the Ministry of Justice building in Rome as people protested the suspension of family visits to prisons due to coronavirus last week.
Police stormed a demonstration near the Ministry of Justice building in Rome as people protested the suspension of family visits to prisons due to coronavirus last week.
Yara Nardi / Reuters

Because of the lengthy bureaucratic process ― and the speed with which coronavirus is progressing ― it’s unlikely that geriatric prisoners could apply for compassionate release under the current circumstances alone.

“For the people who are going to die from this, I don’t think there’s any way that they could possibly move with the speed that they would need to move to be released,” Price noted. “The compassionate release program is not set up for this.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana has already called for expedited parole hearings for elderly prisoners to encourage early releases, as well as for the release of people awaiting trial who aren’t considered a risk to public safety.

Meanwhile, prisoner advocates and some prison officials are desperately trying to protect the elderly inmates who remain inside. The Federal Bureau Of Prisons announced Friday that it would be halting outside visits at all 122 federal facilities. In Rhode Island, Rich is working to get temporary release for some inmates, and at the very least, get those arrested screened before they’re incarcerated.

“There are some things that can be done and some things that can’t,” Rich said, before mentioning the deadly prison riots in Italy that followed attempts to contain the coronavirus there. “We saw what happened in Italy … they know they’re sitting ducks, and they’re not happy about it.”

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