NYU Marron Institute Recommends Prisoners’ Early Release to Prevent COVID-19 Spread

NYU’s Marron Institute of Urban Management issued a report making recommendations to allow the release of at-risk prisoners early to flatten the curve within correctional facilities and aid their transition back to society.

The NYC Department of Correction currently holds between 13,000 and 18,000 inmates. Sanitation in correctional facilities is limited, resulting in a higher risk of infection. (Photo by Marva Shi)

As the number of COVID-19 cases in correctional facilities and jails increases across several states, some states are considering early release of prisoners to allow for greater social distancing within the facilities.

NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management conducts research and works with cities to tackle issues related to urban planning, environmental health, civic analytics and public sector performance and innovation. Urban Management professor Angela Hawken and her team released a report on Wednesday, April 15 making recommendations for the rapid release of prisoners during the pandemic. Suggestions include guidelines for pre-release preparation and post-release supervision and monitoring to aid in the re-entry process for inmates. 

The report was compiled based on observations from five roundtable conferences conducted by the Institute in collaboration with over 100 criminal justice system practitioners from across 20 states.

“We can definitely tell from my conversations with correctional agencies as well as supervision agencies, about how those agencies are really changing,” Hawken told WSN. “These heads of probation will say this is a cultural transformation. They see their tasks differently now.”

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The report is also based on findings from an Illinois-based, early-release pilot project conducted prior to the outbreak of the virus by the authors of the report. The project releases non-violent prisoners nearing the end of their sentences up to six months early.

The United States is the leading country for the most incarcerated people with an estimated 2.3 million people behind bars in different capacities. Data from the World Prison Brief reveals that the United States’ prison system has an occupancy level of 103.9%.

At Cook County Jail in Chicago — where the pilot project was conducted — 134 detainees have tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 1. At New York’s Rikers Island jail complex, more than 231 inmates and 223 staff members have been infected.

Health experts have stated that prisons could soon become epicenters for the spread of the virus if adequate measures are not taken soon. It is difficult to follow social distancing protocols inside correctional facilities, inmates as well as civilians working in these facilities are vulnerable to the virus, professor Hawken said.

“Infections spread so quickly behind bars and every circumstance there is right for the spread of contagion,”  Hawken said.

Although the report’s suggestions are geared toward state and county authorities, Dr. Jonathan Kulick, Senior Research Scholar in the Litmus program — an organization promoting innovation among public agencies at the Marron Institute —  believes that the recommendations can be applied at the federal level as well. 

On March 26, Attorney General William Barr instructed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to release vulnerable, non-violent inmates who are least likely to commit more crimes to finish their sentences in home confinement. However, this plan has been met with criticism surrounding concerns that the algorithm used to determine these inmates is race-based.

The report suggests an early release for inmates who are nearing the completion of their sentence, more vulnerable to infection and who pose the least risk to society. Determining which prisoners should be released early is a source of controversy, which researchers discovered during the pilot program in Illinois. 

“On the one hand, there are concerns about public safety, so how do we explain to people that we are doing this responsibly, and on the other hand, we have risk-assessments that feed into parameters of all sorts of accumulated biases of the past,” Hawken said.

She urged increased transparency from states about the number of inmates and people working in correctional facilities affected by COVID-19. This will allow the states to access more aid and resources. Hawken also said that increased transparency will help to hold states accountable if there is bias in which inmates are released early.

“The more transparent [the states] can be, the more they can get resources in and get in front of this,” she said. “You do not want them to hate data. You want them to recognize that data can save lives.”

She cited Washington state where Gov. Jay Inslee signed an order allowing the early release of 1,000 inmates who have a history of non-violence and were slated to be released in the upcoming weeks or months. The governor’s decision has been met with mixed responses.

Hawken believes that simply releasing inmates early without providing them with adequate resources to aid their reentry into society is not enough. She added that if inmates are given the tools to succeed outside of prison, it will help to curb public skepticism surrounding early release.

“I really believe that if we can release people early and if the resources follow them, instead of $25 and a bus ticket, it is somebody who actually has resources to take themselves up in the community so that they have the chance to breathe a little to get that job rather than just scrambling for a meal on day one,” Hawken said.

She also said that reduced access to mental health resources and other facilities during the pandemic may be a cause for concern for newly released prisoners.

A potentially greater concern involves sanitation inside correctional facilities. Prisoners often have limited access to cleaning and sanitation supplies. Hand sanitizers are particularly controversial because of prison administrators concerns that it can be used to brew alcohol.

Hawken stated that worrying about possible alcohol production within facilities should not come before concerns about cleanliness.

“You can put hand-sanitizing dispensing equipment into line of sight where you can see there is no fancy cocktail being brewed as a result,” she said. “There are ways to do this.”

Hawken said some correctional agencies will be quick to respond and to try to do everything that they can.

“In a situation where there is a spread of virus, they are usually pretty quick to try to keep the space clean,” she said. “Some of our prisons in the United States can maintain cleanliness standards. A sizable number of them, you cannot imagine are accommodating individuals.”

She praised the Seattle Police department for providing inmates with internet access and computers to allow them to stay connected with family and to access mental health resources online. 

There has also been a spread of the virus in ICE detention facilities. In these detainment centers, there are 220 cases among those under custody and 30 among employees as of April 21. In response, some federal judges have issued orders to identify at-risk detainees, including those over the age of 55 and with chronic health conditions, to be released.

Kulick urged that the measures suggested in the report and implemented in ICE detention centers are crucial to helping flatten the curve during this pandemic as most prisons and correctional facilities are overpopulated. 

“In most of the country, most of the jails and prisons are mostly full, some of them are over-full… most of the jails and prisons do not really have extra unused space,” he said.  “So really the only way to reduce the population density [within prisons] and the frequency and intimacy of contact is by letting people go or by not taking people in, in the first place.”

Email Aarushi Sharma at [email protected]

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