COVID-19 Cases Confirmed In Prisons Across The US—Calls For Release of Nonviolent Offenders Increase

The US is known for having the largest prison population in the world, and hundreds of thousands of inmates are now calling for help as both prisoners and guards test positive for the coronavirus.

Dozens of inmates took part in a demonstration at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington State, after six prisoners and five staff members were diagnosed with the virus. While officials confirmed that officers used pepper spray and rubber bullets to try to control the protesters, they claimed no one was harmed. A nonprofit law firm filed a motion calling for the state Supreme court to issue an order that would mandate tests for all prisoners, and push for the release of inmates with underlying health conditions.

In response to the outcry, state officials said they have separated the inmates who tested positive, and they are looking into early release for nonviolent drug offenders who are nearing the end of their sentences.

But the demonstrations were not nearly as peaceful at the Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas where around 20 inmates took part in an hours-long riot Thursday night. Officials said they destroyed property, including breaking windows and setting small fires. So far, 12 inmates and 14 staff members at the jail have tested positive for COVID-19.

Concerns over the rampant spread of the coronavirus are being felt at prisons across the country, with the close quarters between inmates and staff leaving many to worry that it is impossible to escape an infection.

After one prisoner tested positive, the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Vermont conducted 328 tests on all available inmates and staff. So far at least 28 inmates and five staff members tested positive. Reports noted that most inmates were asymptomatic.

At least two inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago have died from complications related to the coronavirus. Right now, 276 prisoners have tested positive for the virus at a facility known as one of the largest single-site jails in the country.

The crisis has drawn the attention of Attorney General William Barr, who issued a memo calling on the federal prisons in Danbury, Connecticut, Oakdale, Louisiana, and Elkton, Ohio to release inmates classified as “vulnerable” in an effort to lessen the impact of the coronavirus. His directive comes after seven inmates died in Oakdale, and so far, more than 500 inmates from the facilities have been moved to home confinement.

Meanwhile, inmates at the Fort Bend County jail in Texas are now devoting their time to sewing masks to protect themselves and essential staff members, with supplies the jail purchases from local businesses. The facility current has zero confirmed cases, and they say their goal is to keep it that way.

Now it still remains to be seen just how much of an impact COVID-19 will have on prisons across the country, but many are hoping it will push facilities to release non-violent offenders and drastically reduce the overall prison population before it is too late. 

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Rachel Blevins is a journalist who aspires to break the left/right paradigm in media and politics by pursuing truth and questioning existing narratives.

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