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Attorney General William Barr directed the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) on April 3 to increase efforts to release incarcerated people eligible for early release and expand the use of home confinement at prisons that have been affected by the novel coronavirus.
In his memo to BOP Director Michael Carvajal, Barr said he is looking to speed up the process at three particular prisons in Louisiana, Connecticut and Ohio, which have been particularly affected by the pandemic. Barr applauded the “substantial steps” the bureau had taken to fight the dangers that the virus poses to vulnerable people in the prison system, but said more needed to be done.
“We are experiencing significant levels of infections at several of our facilities,” Barr said in the memo, which was first reported by Politico. “We have to move with dispatch in using home confinement, where appropriate, to move vulnerable inmates out of these institutions.”
Barr also acknowledged that the precautions the BOP has taken to prevent COVID-19 from entering facilities and affecting those who are incarcerated “have not been perfectly successful at all institutions.” He called on all inmates who have COVID-19 risk factors be released for home confinement following a 14-day quarantine to avoid spreading the virus further.
The memo follows Barr’s initial request to the bureau to identify and release those who were eligible for home confinement, not a threat to the public and were vulnerable to the virus, according to The New York Times. The bureau announced that 552 of the prison system’s 146,000 incarcerated people were transferred to home confinement following the directive.
On April 6, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Louisiana and Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP sued Carvajal and Warden J.P. Young on behalf of incarcerated people at Oakdale Federal Detention Centers. The lawsuit, filed after five coronavirus-related deaths at a federal prison in the state, calls for the release of those who are incarcerated and are at a high risk for serious illness or death because of COVID-19.
The ACLU acknowledged that the seriousness of the issue has been acknowledged by Barr but said the agency has moved too slow.
“Public health experts are consistent in warning that prisons and jails are extremely dangerous incubators for this disease. Conditions are now deadly—threatening the health of incarcerated people, staff and the surrounding community,” Alanah Odoms Herbert, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana said in a statement.
Herbert continued: “What we are seeing on the ground does not encourage us that the federal government is acting with the urgency that will be required to protect Louisianans from this pandemic. We will fight to save the lives of our clients, as well as staff at these facilities and their communities.”
Incarcerated and COVID-19 Positive
An estimated 138 incarcerated people and 51 staff members of the federal prison system have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to The New York Times. At least five people incarcerated at FCI Oakdale in Louisiana and another two at FCI Elkton in Ohio have died in the growing pandemic. Another person at FCI Elkton who died was tested for COVID-19, but those results are pending.
- Frank McCoy, 76, was serving a 121 month sentence for possession of child pornography at FCI Elkton. On March 26, McCoy was transported to a local hospital because he was unable to maintain his oxygen saturation, the Bureau of Prisons said in a statement. McCoy, who had long-term, pre-existing medical conditions, tested positive for COVID-19. His condition declined, prompting health officials to place him on a ventilator. He died on April 2.
- Wallace Holley, Jr., 56, was serving a 336 month sentence for armed bank robbery, use of a firearm in a crime of violence, car-jacking and bank robbery at FCI Oakdale. On March 26, Holley went into respiratory failure and was taken to a local hospital for further treatment. Holley, who tested positive for COVID-19, was placed on a ventilator after his condition declined. The Bureau of Prisons said that Holley suffered from long-term, pre-existing medical conditions. He died on April 2.
- Margarito Garcia-Fragoso, 65, was serving a 126 month sentence for possession with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking crime at FSL Elkton. On March 27, Garcia-Fragoso was evaluated by prison medical staff and taken to a local hospital due to a failure to maintain oxygen saturation, a statement said. He tested positive for COVID-19 and his condition quickly declined. Garcia-Fragoso, who had long-term, pre-existing conditions, was placed on a ventilator. He died on April 2.
- David Townsend, 66, was serving a 240 month sentence for possession with intent to distribute at FCI Oakdale, the bureau said. He went into respiratory failure on March 28 and was taken to a local hospital for further treatment. There, he tested positive for COVID-19 and was placed on a ventilator. Townsend, who had long-term, pre-existing medical conditions, was pronounced dead on April 2.
- Woodrow Taylor, 53, was serving a 60 month sentence for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute at FSL Elkton. On March 31, Taylor was taken to a local hospital due to an inability to maintain a sufficient oxygen saturation and shortness of breath. The Bureau of Prison said his condition quickly declined and he was placed on a ventilator. Taylor, who had long-term, pre-existing medical conditions, was tested for COVID-19 but results were pending. He died on April 2.
- James Wilson, 57, was serving a 135-month sentence for obscene material and receipt of child pornagraphy at FCI Oakdale. On March 29, Wilson went into respiratory failure and was transported to a local hospital. Wilson tested positive for COVID-19 and a day later was placed on a ventilator after his condition deteriorated. The bureau confirmed he had long-term, pre-existing conditions. Wilson died on April 1.
- Nicholas Rodriguez, 43, was serving a 188 month sentence for conspiracy to distribute a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of methamphetamine at FCI Oakdale. On March 25, Rodriguez was not able to maintain oxygen saturation, had a high temperature and a rapid heartbeat. He was taken to a local hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19. Rodriguez’s condition declined on March 27 and he was placed on a ventilator. He had long-term, pre-existing medication conditions, the Bureau of Prisons confirmed. He died on April 1.
- Patrick Jones, 49, was serving a 324-month sentence for possession with intent to distribute at FCI Oakdale. Jones complained of a persistent cough on March 19 and, after being evaluated by institutional medical staff, was taken to a local hospital. There, he tested positive COVID-19. Jones’ condition declined and he was placed on a ventilator on March 20. The Bureau of Prison confirmed he had long-term, pre-existing medical conditions. Jones died on March 28.
Government Officials Face Criticism for Inaction
Federal officials are not the only ones facing criticism for inaction at prisons during the coronavirus pandemic. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have received their share of criticism for acting “dangerously slow” in releasing vulnerable people from the state’s prisons and jails, particularly from Rikers Island.
On March 30, The New York Times called on Cuomo to prevent a coronavirus disaster by releasing people from prison. The op-ed noted that the consequences of not doing so “will be devastating, for people both inside and outside of prison walls.” It noted that officers and staff members who get infected will bring the virus home to their families. Those who get sick will die unnecessarily or transferred to local hospitals in rural communities that are unequipped for an influx of patients.
“We have little time to curb the spread of the virus within our state’s jails and prisons, and, by extension, across our state,” the opinion piece stated. “This is not only an issue about the health of people in prisons, but also a public health crisis that threatens to become a humanitarian disaster.”
In response to the criticism and calls to reduce the prison population, Cuomo claimed that he does not have the power to reduce the state’s prison population. Several criminal justice reform advocates were quick to push back against that claim.
Lawyer Kumar Rao said in a tweet Cuomo’s statement “is a bald-face offensive lie.” Rao went on to explain that Cuomo can release New Yorkers through clemency, pardons, early parole, compassionate release, furloughs and by rescinding technical parole violations.
While Cuomo has not moved forward in reducing prison numbers during the health crisis, New York City’s de Blasio announced on March 31 that 900 incarcerated people had been released from the city’s jails. The push comes as at least 167 incarcerated people and 137 staffers at Rikers Island tested positive for COVID-19, according to The New York Times.
Who to Support
There are several organizations that have called for the reduction of prison populations during the coronavirus pandemic, including:
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About the Author
Nicole Rojas is a senior writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Europe, Asia, Australia and the Americas.