WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is considering the release of some federal prisoners in an attempt to reduce the risk of a larger outbreak of the coronavirus in the nation's largest prison system.
President Donald Trump on Sunday acknowledged the potential vulnerability of elderly inmates, saying that the administration is weighing the move to include "totally nonviolent prisoners" after the nation's largest detention system reported its first known case of the coronavirus involving an inmate. The prisoner has been quarantined at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.
Federal officials said the inmate, who was not identified, complained of chest pains March 16, shortly after arriving at the New York facility. He was taken to an outside hospital three days later, where he was tested for the virus.
Following his March 20 discharge from the hospital, authorities said he returned to the Brooklyn detention center and was "immediately placed in isolation." Prison officials were notified of the positive test results Saturday.
"BOP staff will continue to monitor this inmate," the agency 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."
An undisclosed number of other inmates who shared housing with the prisoner also are being quarantined. The isolation order may extend to staff members who were in contact with the prisoner.
There were no known cases of virus involving Brooklyn staffers, though the federal Bureau of Prisons has reported that a staffer in Grand Prairie, Texas, and another in Leavenworth, Kansas, have tested positive. Neither of the infected staffers had contact with inmates, the agency said.
Calls for more prisoner releases
The positive test prompted renewed calls Sunday for the Justice Department to approve the release of pretrial detainees, the elderly and the chronically ill to reduce the risk of a larger outbreak in Brooklyn at at other facilities.
David Patton, executive director the federal defender service in New York, said that as many 700 prisoners in the Brooklyn facility and at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan could meet the CDC's standard as vulnerable to contracting the virus.
But Patton said federal prosecutors are opposing bail requests, arguing that the threat of the coronavirus should not be a factor in authorizing release.
"This is a real disaster waiting to happen," Patton said Sunday.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., called on federal prison officials to intervene and begin reducing the population of its prisons and detention centers to avoid a larger outbreak.
"It will be a catastrophe if the Department of Justice continues to proceed if everything is normal," Jeffries said.
Precautions already taken at prisons
Earlier this month, the federal system announced it was halting visitation across its 122 facilities that house more than 170,000 inmates for at least a month. The contact restriction also applies to attorney-client meetings, except when approved by prison authorities.
All inmate transfers and staff travel have been halted, as well.
Similar restrictions have been announced by local jails and state prison systems across the country, including California and Texas.
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Fearing the virus, like other diseases in confined spaces, could spread quickly, county officials in Oklahoma and South Carolina have been releasing dozens of prisoners to reduce density in their jails.
Roger Werholtz, a former director of the Kansas Department of Corrections, has said the actions by the federal government and states are encouraging. But agencies still face the challenge of safeguarding prisoners who cannot follow one of the key recommendations to avoid contracting the virus: to limit social interactions.
"This idea of social distancing cannot be achieved in prison like we are asking the general public to do," Werholtz said. "And when you want to segregate people from each other, you cannot do it in many cases. It will be really difficult to lock down the population in ways that can be beneficial."
The BOP has no known cases of COVID-19 among staff at MDC Brooklyn.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Federal inmate tests positive for coronavirus in New York facility