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Jail staffers and experts are warning the worst is yet to come amid the new coronavirus outbreak as officials gradually release inmates – and some of those who are still locked up protest from within, according to a Washington Post report.
“This is a real disaster waiting to happen,” said David Patton, the executive director of the nonprofit Federal Defenders of New York, according to the Post. “These are places that are particularly susceptible to contagion.”
Patton’s comments to the outlet were made Sunday, one day after a male inmate in Brooklyn, New York’s Metropolitan Detention Complex became the first confirmed case in the federal prison system.
The numbers have since risen in corrections centers at all levels across the country, and Ross MacDonald, chief medical officer for New York’s Correctional Health Services warned last week on Twitter that conditions are only going to deteriorate further.
“[W]e cannot change the fundamental nature of jail. We cannot socially distance dozens of elderly men living in a dorm, sharing a bathroom,” he said, in part. “A storm is coming and I know what I’ll be doing when it claims my first patient. What will you be doing? What will you have done? We have told you who is at risk. Please let as many out as you possibly can.”
Across the U.S., officials have begun releasing inmates or refusing to accept more individuals as they grapple with the pandemic.
As of Thursday morning, at least 69,197 people had tested positive for COVID-19 nationwide, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, while more than 487,648 confirmed cases were reported globally, according to Johns Hopkins University and Medicine.
Inmates are starting to panic and, in some cases, rebel against authorities. The Post shared a video of a pair of ICE detainees threatening suicide at an Alabama jail.
Federal inmate and former doctor Anh Do, a 78-year-old being housed at a facility in Texas, told the outlet he and other prisoners are “living three feet apart, in bunk beds, like a dormitory.”
Do has underlying health conditions, including coronary artery disease and high blood pressure, and applied for compassionate release, but BOP ultimately denied his request, the Post reported.
“I’m at very high risk,” he told the outlet. “If one person gets sick, it’s like a death sentence in here.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday said city jails were immediately releasing about 300 inmates serving a year or less for non-violent offenses. New York is the state hit hardest so far by the virus.
The city has already freed several dozen people who are at higher risk of severe illness and who committed low-level offenses.
New York City’s jail system, which includes the notorious Rikers Island complex, said Tuesday night that 52 inmates and 30 staff members have tested positive for the disease.
Convicted rapist and disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after being transferred from Rikers Island to a New York state prison.
Other municipalities across the country have taken similar steps, according to the Post.
Iowa’s Department of Corrections announced it would release approximately 700 inmates, and Pennsylvania’s Mercer County jail announced dozens would be released from the system. Ohio’s Cuyahoga County jails have reportedly released hundreds.
Meanwhile, officials in Racine, Wisconsin have said they will no longer accept new inmates at the local jail, according to the report.
President Trump, too, has reportedly said he is mulling an executive order that would spring elderly “totally nonviolent prisoners.”
“We have been asked about that and we’re going to take a look at it,” Trump said during a Sunday press conference. “It’s a — it’s a bit of a problem. But when we talk about totally nonviolent — we’re talking about these are ‘totally nonviolent prisoners.’”
The federal Bureau of Prisons website indicates the department has stopped moving inmates within the facilities, but emphasized that “the BOP may need to move inmates to better manage the detention bedspace as well as assure that administrative facilities do not become overcrowded beyond available resources.”
The BOP has also temporarily suspended social and legal visits.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.