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New York City Calls to Release Prisoners to Halt Spread of Coronavirus in Jails


The global crisis surrounding the coronavirus and COVID-19 disease has created a number of seemingly unforeseen tertiary effects of public services and their institutions, prompting some drastic moves by government and municipal officials across the United States. While officials call to reduce prison numbers on health grounds, what are the political and social costs?

In a drastic move designed to reduce the city’s prison population and lighten the burden of officials and staff who are already taking on a whole new list of health protocols in the wake the virus outbreak, New York City Board of Corrections issued calls yesterday to substantially reduce the population of the city’s jails.

The city’s Correction Board stated:

Emergency release will minimize the number of people in jail and staff needed on-site during public health crisis. Fewer people in jails will prevent transmission. Release must prioritize people at higher risk from infection.

They continued:

Significantly fewer people in jail will limit the spread of COVID-19 infection among people in custody and those who work in the jails, minimize the number of people in custody who will need medical care, decrease the density of housing areas for people who remain in jail, and allow New Yorkers to maintain connections with and support from their loved ones.

Department officials are profiling certain inmates who would best qualify for early release based on serious risk categories and also the severity of the crime committed. They are as follows.

  • People who are over 50
  • People who have underlying health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, lung problems, cancer or an otherwise compromised immune system
  • Administrative prisoners — people imprisoned for parole violations or failure to appear
  • Anyone serving a year or less

Aside from the potential health and medical advantages to this strategy, another added benefit of this latest move is that it will save substantial costs to the state in terms of administration, management and resources.

However, not everyone believes this is a wise approach. Irish political and social commentary site GRIPT explain the fundamental dichotomy which officials may be misreading during this crisis:

The idea that prisoners be kept inside during a virus outbreak is seen as cruel by some. Turning them onto the streets to terrorise their communities, our elderly, their ex-partners and families is crueller. None of us have chosen the Coronavirus, but our incarcerated population chose prison. At this time when we are trying to reassure people against this most insidious and silent threat of the virus, we propose releasing criminals who make it their business to terrify at least and irreparably harm at worst their victims. The wellbeing of these terror-inducing thugs must be triaged against the wellbeing of law abiding citizens.

Regardless, if New York City officials follow through with this new measure, it is likely that other US cities will also follow suit and begin releasing inmates who fit the said criteria. Any serious political fall-out will no doubt arrive when an early release prisoner is found to re-offend, especially if it is a violent crime, whereby the issue would quickly elevate to the level of national news story.

To make maters even more potentially complicated, many governments and law enforcement districts have announced  that they will also be making fewer new arrests, supposedly to lighten the burden on police and first responders, as well as government resources in general. Again, this policy may only be admissible so long as no serious spike in crime or a major high-profile incident does not take place.

In civic terms, officials are playing a game of roulette. Certainly, in this high-stakes game of risk management, we can expect mixed results.

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