**Please see author’s note below.**
Last October, I was walking home from a dinner in New York City past dark. Steps from my apartment, I noticed someone behind me. I thought I could make it to my door. I was wrong.
Cornered on my apartment steps, I was confronted by a man who proceeded to comment on my body using slurred adjectives I don’t care to repeat. Every time I took a step up towards the door, he advanced, asking if I wanted “company.” Fumbling with my keys and totally out of options, I saw a couple walking down the deserted sidewalk across from me. The husband gave me a sign as if to ask are you okay? I shook my head no. He began to yell. As my antagonizer turned around to see what the commotion was I ran up the steps and slipped inside.
Recently, in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus among the prison population, Attorney General William Barr issued directives to the US Bureau of Prisons to release thousands of prisoners. On March 26th, his first memo laid out criteria for the release of felons subject to minimum security and/or with underlying health conditions. On April 3rd, he released a second memorandum expanding the guidelines to “maximize appropriate transfers of all appropriate inmates…where COVID-19 is materially affecting operations.”
The United States prison system is undeniably a hotspot for the virus. In such close quarters, measures to mitigate the spread are difficult to execute. Certainly, prison workers should be provided appropriate protective equipment to ensure their safety at this time. However, releasing inmates without establishing stringent and consistent criteria for selection cannot be considered an appropriate contingency plan.
Those being released are cause for serious concern. Currently, the only prisoners prohibited from liberation are sex offenders. That leaves those convicted of fraud, arson, DUI, assault, robbery or vandalism all potentially qualified for reentry; an extremely broad array to select from and subjectively discharge into society.
Not only this, but the bureau lacks resources to track such a high volume of individuals on parole. In his most recent memo, the Attorney General admitted:
I recognize that the BOP has limited resources to monitor inmates on home confinement and that the U.S. Probation Office is unable to monitor large numbers of inmates in the community.
COVID-19 will eventually be controlled, and the pandemic will end. But there will never be a vaccine to protect us from future harm by criminals released prematurely. Releasing prisoners without establishing clear and consistent criteria to guide that process creates a threat that will last far longer than the lifecycle of this virus.
I got lucky that night in October. But the recent decisions made by our justice department put me and any other law-abiding citizen at greater risk going forward. And I don’t know how many more times I can get lucky.
** Author’s Note: This post was intended to comment solely on this specific directive from the Attorney General’s office in response to COVID-19. I feel that the COVID memos released were vague and allowed for too much subjectivity in their execution, subjectivity that could create dangerous and unfair situations for both free citizens and those incarcerated. This post is not intended to comment on the justice system as a whole, or the mechanisms at play that may have led to the arrest of these individuals. I believe there is work to be done on the issue of criminal justice, and any post addressing systemic and historical issues would have to go far more in depth than this blog is designed for. However, for those interested, I am including a few resources below that have been helpful in my own research on the need for criminal justice reform.