US Attorney General William Barr on Thursday recommended the release of prisoners at risk of house arrest for the remainder of their sentences, signaling that he asks release prisoners to limit the spread of the new deadly coronavirus novel are being heard at the federal level.
Barr said federal authorities should prioritize the release of prisoners at risk, including those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly, including the nearly 10,000 federal prisoners over the age of 60, groups that preliminary data show are most severely affected. by the coronavirus.
While this is a positive step, it is only the first, according to Michael Mendoza, national director of # cut50, a bipartisan effort to reduce crime and incarceration in the United States.
"I recommend the attorney general," Mendoza told Al Jazeera. "It will save lives. But more needs to be done."
& # 39; Slowing down the spread & # 39;
Mendoza spent 22 years in prison for his involvement in a gang-related murder – being incarcerated in an adult prison at the age of 17 – before being arrested in 2014 in a California prison.
Federal prisons, which house about 145,000 inmates, have security levels between one and five. Mendoza spent time in prisons between levels two and five, and the health and hygiene of those places were "poor", he said.
When asked if the coronavirus could be stopped within the prison system, Mendoza replied: "No, but you can slow the spread".
Mendoza praised efforts made by California officials and echoed across the United States, such as screening the team for coronavirus symptoms before they enter prisons and free phone calls.
For people inside prisons, communicating with loved ones is a significant help, said Mendoza.
Since most prison and penitentiary systems have canceled visits while the pandemic continues, simply "knowing that your family is well … is a lot for someone's emotional and mental well-being. Stress also compromises your immune system."
Still, requests for medical attention can take up to two weeks to be answered, which "could be a death sentence" for prisoners whose immune systems are compromised, and basic hygiene items, such as soap, are scarce.
Mendoza hopes that federal and state authorities will be able to continue expanding policies such as toll-free calls and providing accurate information through prison televisions, while addressing systemic issues like health care for incarcerated people.
The USA has a complex system of prisons and jails, administered at national, state and local levels. New York City has made headlines for its efforts to free incarcerated individuals at the local level as it assumes the role of epicenter spread of the pandemic in the USA.
Officials in New York City released 200 prisoners from jail on Thursday, with another 175 planned for release, reducing the number of prisoners in the city to levels never seen since World War II.
"None of us expected this crisis, but one thing emerged from this: our prison population continued to decline," said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Even when the city's prison population reaches historic lows, "[c]collectively, we think the mayor should be doing more, "said Dr. Robert Cohen, a member of the New York City Correction Board, a nine-person non-judicial oversight board that regulates, monitors and inspects the correctional facilities of City.
At least 58 New York Department of Corrections (DOC) employees had tested positive for coronavirus along with 73 inmates at DOC facilities on Thursday, the New York Post reported.
Releasing more prisoners who have committed violations, such as parole violations – and taking a closer look at who qualifies for high-risk groups – can help, Cohen told Al Jazeera.
"The fewer people there are in prisons and prisons … the more slowly the virus will spread in these populations, and the more slowly it will "spread out through employees who go home at night," added Cohen.
Those who have been released so far are "basically people who have sentences in the city for minimal crimes," explained Cohen.
About 1,000 more prisoners on Rikers Island, one of the first installations in the U.S., to have a confirmed case of coronavirus in the prison population, they are behind bars for low-risk infractions, such as parole violations, Cohen said.
Cohen, who He worked on Rikers Island and oversaw medical care for prisoners in Florida, Ohio, New York State, Michigan and Connecticut, and warned that prisoners' health is different from the health of the general population.
Regarding US Attorney General William Barr's comments on those over 60, Cohen said incarcerated "people over 50 are usually quite old ".
At 50, people have an average of three or four continuous health risks and can use up to seven drugs, according to data, the doctor explained. Life is more difficult behind bars, and it comes at a price.
Cohen and Mendoza said measures should be taken to release as many prisoners as possible in the communities.
But governments are not inclined to act quickly, Cohen continued, noting that the mayor of New York City cannot make decisions on his own and must meet with governors and prison officials.
Still, urgency is important, he said.
The United States is "getting into this thing. Every day, in the next period, if it doesn't get better, it will get worse. For prisons and jails, it's important to act as quickly as possible."