Attorney General William Barr has directed prison officials at a number of federal facilities besieged by growing coronavirus cases to immediately maximize early release programs for a wide swath of vulnerable inmates.
“We are experiencing significant levels of infection at several of our facilities,” Barr wrote in a memo Friday, singling out federal prisons in Louisiana, Connecticut and Ohio that have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. “We have to move with dispatch in using home confinement, where appropriate, to move vulnerable inmates out of these institutions.”
The new memo expands on guidance Barr issued last week to the federal prison system, encouraging early release programs and triggering a provision of the federal stimulus law signed by President Donald Trump last month to expand the group of inmates eligible for early release. The move comes at the end of a week that saw eight federal inmates die after contracting the virus.
In the three-page memo, Barr told the Bureau of Prisons director to double down on the release programs at FCI Oakdale, a prison in Oakdale, Louisiana; FCI Danbury in Danbury, Connecticut; and FCI Elkton in Lisbon, Ohio.
Five inmates have died at the Oakdale prison in a week and three at the Lisbon facility, including two on Friday. Most of the inmates who died had long-term, pre-existing medical conditions, the Bureau of Prisons has said. As of Friday, there were 91 inmates with confirmed cases of coronavirus, including 18 in Oakdale, two in Lisbon and 20 in Danbury. Also, 50 Bureau of Prisons staff members have been confirmed to have the virus.
The federal prison system accounts for only a small percentage of the total number of incarcerated individuals in the country, numbering nearly 150,000 inmates across 122 facilities. State and locally owned prisons have been experiencing the spread of the virus behind bars and experimenting with early release programs, too.
In New York City – the epicenter of the virus in the US with more than 1,800 reported deaths, according to a tally by researchers at Johns Hopkins University – more than 160 inmates in city facilities were confirmed to have the virus as of earlier this week. On Friday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said more than 1,000 inmates had been released early in an effort to ease the burden on the prison system and protect vulnerable inmates.
At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons moved earlier this week to a heightened state of lockdown, keeping inmates confined in their cells with limited exceptions for education programs, health treatment and some prison services. Last month, the BOP limited internal transfers of inmates and banned most outside visitors.
Barr first moved to expand the use of home confinement for certain vulnerable inmates last week after a lobbying campaign from lawmakers and advocates.
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, cheered the move to employ it on Friday. Nadler had written to Barr last week urging him to expand access to the home confinement program under the stimulus provision.
“Today, we learned that Attorney General Barr has made a key finding related to the COVID-19 pandemic that triggers expanded authority under the CARES Act to transfer prisoners to home confinement. This is a positive development, and I urge appropriate and swift use of this power,” Nadler said in a statement.