U.S. Prosecutors Resist Calls to Free Inmates Amid Crisis

Five inmates at a federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, have died since March 28 after contracting the coronavirus. Harold Lee’s family fears he could be next, Reuters reports.

Lee, who was sentenced in 2018 for a bank fraud conviction, has asked a federal court for release on home confinement. The 59-year-old has hypertension and requires a breathing machine to sleep.

Oakdale was the country’s first federal prison to report fatalities from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus. The head of the local guard’s union says dozens of inmates at the complex’s low-security unit, where Lee is housed with nearly 1,000 other prisoners, are showing flu-like symptoms.

The U.S. Justice Department, which oversees the nation’s largest prison system, wants to keep Lee behind bars. Lee’s concerns “are based entirely on speculation and generalized fear,” a federal prosecutor said in a filing this week. The case is still pending, Reuters adds.

Prosecutors have been making similar arguments in federal courts across the United States, according to a Reuters review of documents from dozens of court cases, and interviews with attorneys, legal advocates and inmates’ relatives.

At a time when some prison authorities in states from New York to California are rushing to free non-violent offenders, elderly criminals and other medically high-risk prisoners, the DOJ so far has taken a more cautious line on coronavirus-related releases from federal facilities, Reuters noted.

Court documents show federal prosecutors have contended that judges cannot force the government to put prisoners on home confinement. They have urged courts to deny bond to defendants who are in jail awaiting trial.

They have suggested that some inmates with pre-existing medical conditions would be safer in prison than at home. And they have expressed skepticism about claims of virus-related illness among people facing incarceration, Reuters writes.

In West Virginia, for example, prosecutors on March 27 asked a court not to postpone the date when a man convicted on a gun possession charge was supposed to report to jail, after the defendant’s attorney asked for more time because his client, Ricky Nelson, was displaying COVID-19 symptoms. A judge has twice-delayed his surrender date anyway, based on a doctor’s note.

“They’re fighting the release of vulnerable people on technicalities. It’s disgusting,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a group that has pushed to reduce the number of people in prisons.

Criminal-justice advocates like Ring have warned for months that U.S. jails and prison are potential hothouses for infection. Inmates live in close quarters, share bathrooms and dining halls, and often have limited access to health care.

Nearly 2.3 million people were locked up in the United States in 2017, according to the latest count by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics; it’s the highest incarceration figure in the world by far. The federal prison system alone houses approximately 175,000 inmates.

The Justice Department told Reuters it is working towards transferring more inmates to home confinement. And it has instructed prosecutors to utilize video-teleconferencing and to seek continuances in cases of non-violent offenders awaiting sentencing.

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