Attorney General William Barr has directed federal prison authorities to begin identifying more elderly and medically compromised inmates for home confinement to avoid a larger outbreak of the coronavirus inside the agency's 122 institutions.
Barr's directive comes as lawmakers and civil rights advocates have urged the Justice Department in recent days to reduce the number of vulnerable prisoners who would be most at risk of infection inside the nation's largest detention system.
As of Thursday, officials reported that six inmates and four staffers have been infected with the virus. Barr said that one of the inmates, a prisoner in Louisiana, was in critical condition.
Barr acknowledged that there were rising "concerns" for the plight of the 170,000 federal prisoners and the 36,000 staffers who are in regular and close contact with the inmates everyday.
While the attorney expressed confidence in the agency's capacity shield prisoners from disease, he said "there are some at-risk inmates who are non-violent and pose minimal likelihood of recidivism and who might be safer serving their sentences in home confinement rather than in BOP facilities."
Describing the risk of a prison outbreak to "a fire in a dry barn," some conservative groups, including the American Conservative Union, had called on the president to intervene. The groups urged the president to issue an executive order, allowing the elderly and non-violent offenders who have served two-thirds of their sentences to complete their terms at home.
President Donald Trump said Sunday that the administration had been considering such a move. Barr's directive the first indication that the government had put a plan in motion.
“We commend the Department of Justice and federal Bureau of Prisons for heeding the call of public health experts and working to reduce the federal prison population," Kanya Bennett, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU. "Everyone agrees that the very nature of the criminal legal system puts vulnerable populations at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19.”
Jessica Jackson, chief advocacy officer for the REFORM Alliance which supports prison reduction efforts, said the attorney general's directive could "save lives.”
“Protecting vulnerable incarcerated people from exposure to COVID-19 is not just good for their safety, but also for others behind bars and correctional staff who are at risk of spreading the disease back into their communities," Jackson said.
The attorney general said there were about 10,000 prisoners 60 or older. But decisions on release could be complicated as about 40% of those are serving terms for violent crimes and sex offenses and who would not be eligible for release under terms of Thursday's directive.
In a letter earlier this week to Barr and Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal, a group of senators led by Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., urged the government to begin moving the elderly and terminally ill from custody.
"Conditions of confinement do not afford individuals the opportunity to take proactive steps to protect themselves, and prisons often create the ideal environment for the transmission of contagious disease," the senators wrote. "For these reasons, it is important that consistent with the law and taking into account public safety and health concerns, that the most vulnerable inmates are released or transferred to home confinement, if possible."
Federal prison officials, who earlier this month halted all visitation, said Tuesday that they will now quarantine all new prisoners for 14 days in a further effort to limit the virus' spread.
While the federal government was just launching its effort to reduce the prison population, local and state governments have been releasing waves of prisoners from its jails and prisons to reduce the risk of infection and create additional space to quarantine infected prisoners.
The largest such effort was underway in New Jersey where hundreds of prisoners were expected to exit county jails this week under an order issued by Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner.
The ACLU estimated that the New Jersey releases could reach 1,000.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Feds to expand home confinement for elderly inmates