While the rest of the country implements increasingly extreme measures to combat the coronavirus crisis, the U.S. criminal justice system just keeps humming along as if nothing has changed.
As Rep. Jerry Nadler wrote in a recent letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, “In spite of the recent national emergency declaration and the fact that state and local prosecutorial agencies and courts across the country have made adjustments to their charging policies and are releasing prisoners who are at high risk of getting sick, it appears that it is ‘business as usual’ in many U.S. Attorney’s offices. If true, this is deeply distressing.”
Nadler was referring to the fact that Federal prosecutors are continuing to move forward with prosecutions for non-violent crime – and continuing to incarcerate more prisoners in facilities that are basically large-scale Petri dishes for bacteria, germs, and viruses.
That means that new prisoners are being sent into prisons – and, in many cases, housed in those prisons’ general population sections rather than isolated from other prisoners.
It also means that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is not releasing those prisoners who are considered to be “high risk” in terms of the coronavirus.
Just a few days ago, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Hajjar – one of the prosecutors who helped to convict NXIVM/ESP leader Keith Raniere – wrote that no inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, NY or any other federal facility had tested positive for the coronavirus.
What she failed to mention is that the BOP was not doing any testing of prisoners.
That’s all changed now.
First Federal Inmate Tests Positive at MDC
Earlier today, the BOP confirmed that an inmate at MDC tested positive for the coronavirus on Saturday.
That prisoner has now been quarantined at an undisclosed location within MDC.
The unidentified inmate had complained of chest pains shortly after arriving at MDC on March 16th.
He was taken to an outside hospital on March 19th for testing – and returned to MDC on March 20th after the testing confirmed he was, in fact, infected with the coronavirus.
Once he was returned to MDC, he was immediately placed in isolation.
“BOP staff will continue to monitor this inmate,” the BOP said in a statement, adding that the prisoner remains in isolation. “All (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines are being followed, including the conduct of a contact investigation and additional sanitation of affected areas.”
The BOP also confirmed that an undisclosed number of other MDC inmates who shared housing with the infected prisoner have also been quarantined.
The agency also indicated that it may also isolate the MDC staff who had contact with the prisoner.
Lots More Questions Than Answers
The coronavirus is, in fact, a new type of virus that has never been seen before.
But what happens when you place new prisoners into an existing inmate housing unit is something that the BOP – and the staff at MDC – know a lot about.
Having spent some 28-months at MDC, I can personally attest that there were at least three serious outbreaks of infectious diseases while I was there – and that each of those outbreaks occurred after new inmates were transferred into MDC from other facilities.
In a confined space like MDC that provides zero sunshine – and almost no fresh air – to the 1,600 inmates located there, diseases and infections spread quickly and almost universally.
So, then why the hell in times like this would the BOP admit a new prisoner – and immediately place them in a general population unit?
Wouldn’t it make more sense to either delay new incarcerations except for those who are considered a danger to society – or at least isolate all new prisoners for a reasonable period of time to ensure they don’t infect the rest of the prison population?
And given what’s going on in the U.S. and throughout the world, why would MDC wait three days before getting a prisoner who was exhibiting classic symptoms of coronavirus tested for disease?
And why would MDC transport a potentially infected prisoner to an outside hospital – a process that brings the prisoner into close proximity with 10-15 other inmates and staff – rather than have the MDC medical staff do the testing (The test involves taking a swab of the potentially infected person’s upper nasal area)?
And why is the BOP still banning hand sanitizers in prison? Is it actually more concerned about inmates drinking the stuff than it is about preventing the spread of coronavirus?
Why has the BOP not responded to calls for it to release inmates who are at high risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus: e.g., the elderly, those who have underlying respiratory issues, the chronically ill, etc. (According to David Patton, the Executive Director of the Federal Defender Service in New York City, there may be as many as 350 inmates at MDC who meet the CDC’s “high risk” standard)?
Why isn’t the Department of Justice postponing the trials of all defendants whose alleged crimes do not involve violence?
Disastrous Problems Coming to Federal Prisoners
I am not an alarmist or a scaremonger.
But I am extremely concerned about what’s going to happen in our federal prisons as the coronavirus invariably spreads into them.
If the national “infection rate” nationwide is going to eventually be in the 60%-80% range – which is the latest projection range – then the “infection rate” in federal prions is going to be at least in the 70%-90% range.
If the “fatality rate” for those who contract the coronavirus in the U.S. is going to end up being in the 1.5%-2.5% range, that rate will be even higher for prisoners.
Let me translate those percentages into real numbers for you.
If 80% of the inmates at MDC contract the coronavirus – and the disease is fatal for 2% of those who get infected – then 26 of the current inmates there are going to die.
And if the “infection rate” and the “fatality rate” at MDC turn out to be substantially higher, that number could be even higher.
One other thing I think will likely happen is that the security at federal prisons like MDC will eventually be taken over by the National Guard.
That’s because the “infection rate” and “fatality rate” for the existing guards at those types of federal prisons are also quite likely to be above average.
And given that we do not have any sort of back-up plan for the existing guards, where else are we going to turn?