Public defender, former prosecutor: 5 steps to confront coronavirus in America's prisons

David Patton and Brett L. Tolman, Opinion contributors

Our justice system is in crisis. COVID-19 has infected thousands of people who live in, work in or visit jails and prisons, and many in surrounding communities. Hundreds have died. The numbers climb higher every day.

Now, our streets are filled with unrest as people from all walks of life grapple with policing practices that have led to the recent, unconscionable killing of black men like George Floyd in Minneapolis and black women like Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky.

As a federal public defender and a former U.S. Attorney, we are used to being on opposite sides of a case. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as our nation fills with protest turning to violence, the time has come for us to work together in an effort to protect public safety and public health.

We both proudly serve on the COVID-19 Emergency Justice Task Force, made up of justice system first responders across the country who are on the front lines of the pandemic.

In the few prisons and jails where mass testing has begun, we can see that COVID-19 has spread, unknown and unchecked. In the federal prison system, 70% of people who have been tested have come back positive.

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This doesn’t just endanger the health and lives of incarcerated people. COVID-19 in jails and prisons threatens correctional officers, medical staff, U.S. Marshals, the families they go home to and the communities where they live.

To stop the spread of COVID-19 and prevent further catastrophes, we need to attack this problem on five fronts:

►First, we need to slow the spread of COVID-19 by safely reducing jail and prison overcrowding. Tens of thousands of people in prison are near the end of their sentences, have already been approved for parole or home confinement, or are participating in work-release or halfway house programs in the community. These people can safely be released with no risk to public safety.

Allow elderly inmates to go home

Thousands more are seriously ill, elderly or otherwise at elevated risk for COVID-19, who are serving time for nonviolent offenses and can be transferred to home confinement to serve the duration of their sentences, or to whom courts should grant compassionate release. Data shows that individuals over the age of 55 are much less likely to recommit crime, and elderly prisoners are the most expensive to incarcerate. Focusing home confinement and compassionate release on this vulnerable group prioritizes public safety and saves significant taxpayer money.

►Second, we need to preserve and expand addiction and mental health treatment, alternatives to incarceration and reentry programs. Many of the people in our prisons and jails are there because they have untreated mental health or substance abuse disorders. Expanding treatment opportunities and diversion programs will keep sick people out of the criminal justice system, and keep our communities healthier and safer.

And for those being released from prison during this pandemic, we need to support the service providers that help them reintegrate into society, find housing and employment, and successfully complete their probation or parole requirements. These reentry providers, often small nonprofits, have seen the economic crisis decrease their funding at the same time as it has drastically increased the demand for their help.

A security fence surrounds inmate housing on the Rikers Island correctional facility in New York. Prisons and jails are a potential epicenter for America’s coronavirus pandemic.

►Third, we must improve testing, medical care and treatment for people who live or work in prisons and jails. In case after case, broad testing has revealed much more significant outbreaks than initial reports suggested. It is not enough to take temperatures and monitor people for flu-like symptoms. We need to test everyone, and institute real isolation and quarantine programs for those who are sick or have been exposed. Without universal testing, it will be impossible to reinstate access to courts, counsel and prisons.

►Fourth, we need to improve access to technology to maintain essential services —justice system stakeholders have scrambled to find the technology and resources to move services online, ensure constitutional protections and allow for transparent public proceedings. These changes have strained the budgets of courts, public defenders, prosecutors, jails and prisons. We need to support states and cities that are struggling to maintain their constitutional responsibilities and protect public health.

Help former offenders find jobs

►Fifth, we need to encourage and expand second chance workforce opportunities. The single best way to help someone successfully reenter communities and improve public safety is to make sure they have a job. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, even with a booming job market, many people with criminal records struggled to find employment. Now, with the economy faltering, we need to work even harder to ensure that people who have made mistakes are still able to find a job and provide for themselves and their families. Our communities will be safer, more prosperous and more prepared for the next crisis if we help provide second chances to people who need them.

When the pandemic finally subsides, we may go back to opposite sides of the courtroom. But we recognize the importance of working together now to save lives on the front lines of a public safety emergency. In the next relief bill, we ask Congress to come together across party lines to include funding for states to address the pandemic inside their jails and prisons and to provide the critical resources we need to keep our communities safe and healthy.

Brett L. Tolman is a former U.S. Attorney for Utah. He is founder of The Tolman Group, which focuses on public policy and government reform. David Patton is executive director and attorney in chief of the Federal Defenders of New York.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How to confront coronavirus pandemic in America's prisons