The Next Coronavirus Hotspot: America's Prisons?

April 18, 2020 Topic: Coronavirus Blog Brand: Coronavirus Tags: PrisonHealthCOVID-19CoronavirusMaryland

The Next Coronavirus Hotspot: America's Prisons?

How can it be avoided while protecting the public? 

The coronavirus pandemic has compelled unprecedented levels of emergency activity on the part of government, both at the federal and state level. While this action has been massive, and broad, there are still calls for more focused, precise measures to benefit groups who are at a higher risk of developing life-threatening complications from the virus. These include people with preexisting conditions and especially the elderly, particularly those living in nursing homes.

One group that is being called at-risk are prisoners because they live in close vicinity to others and all of their activities and items are communal. Civil liberties activists are calling for government officials to do more to help prison populations, some of which have had coronavirus outbreaks in the United States.

Nationally, over 16,000 people have been released from jails out of concern from the pandemic. Typically, individuals held in jails have not yet been convicted of a crime and are awaiting their trials. They can be released on bail or some sort of arrangement, and many administers have decided releasing certain people is more beneficial to public health than keeping them behind bars before conviction. In this case, the only people released were being held on non-violent charges or were thought to pose no threat to others.

For prisons holding people that cannot be released, more measures are being taken to prevent the spread of disease. In Texas, a federal judge issued a temporary order mandating that a Texas prison begin providing hand sanitizer and face masks to inmates. The state has so far had 327 prisoners test positive for the coronavirus.

Other areas, people criticize, could do more, however. Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland has been one of the most proactive executives in the country when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic. Maryland was one of the first states to declare a state of emergency, and Hogan has publicly disagreed with his fellow Republican, President Donald Trump, about being too eager to lift social distancing restrictions before outbreaks are under control.

Civil liberties advocates and Democratic lawmakers are requesting that Hogan use his authority to release high-risk inmates, including the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions, and individuals who are approaching their release date anyway. 136 individuals within the Maryland prison system have tested positive for the coronavirus, although 105 of those cases are correctional officers. One inmate has officially died from the virus, however.

Hogan has resisted these pleas and believes that the current system is the safest for the prison population. “People that are in our correctional facilities are kind of protected and in quarantine,” the governor said in March. One action he did take immediately once the state of emergency began was to end all outside visitations to the prisons.

Hunter DeRensis is a senior reporter for the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @HunterDeRensis.