Feds may send some prisoners home due to virus risks

Attorney General William Barr moved on Thursday to release some federal inmates at heightened risk from the coronavirus, but said no one would be freed immediately under the policy because of the need to make sure prisoners are not spreading the virus into the community.

“Obviously, the health and safety of our inmates and our staff is a top priority for us,” Barr said at a Justice Department news conference. “We take seriously our responsibility to protect those who are in our custody.”

The attorney general said he inquired with federal Bureau of Prisons officials last week about protecting vulnerable inmates and lowering the chances of a serious outbreak by lowering prison populations.

“I asked if it was possible to expand home confinement, particularly for those older prisoners who have served substantial parts of their sentences and no longer pose a threat and may have underlying conditions that make them particularly vulnerable,” Barr said.

The attorney general issued a directive to the Bureau of Prisons on Thursday urging that the inmate population be reduced by sending some prisoners home, but he stressed that might not be the safest option for every prisoner.

“We are now in the process of trying to expand home confinement as part of the process of trying to control the spread of this infection,” he said.

Any prisoners moved out of federal facilities as part of the effort would be held in quarantine within the prison for 14 days before release to make sure they are not infectious, Barr’s memo said. Those convicted of sex offenses would not be considered for release, and those serving time for “serious offenses“ would have less chance of getting out, the directive said.

In some cases, vulnerable prisoners might be at less risk in jail than they would be at home, Barr argued. “Many inmates will be safer in BOP facilities where the population is controlled and there is ready access to doctors and medical care,“ he wrote.

There are about 167,000 federal prisoners in federal facilities and private or locally run jails, with about 10,000 of them older than 60, the attorney general told reporters.

So far, six federal prisoners have tested positive for Covid-19 and been isolated, with one of those inmates from a facility in Oakdale, La., in critical condition, Barr said. Four staff members systemwide have tested positive, he said.

Barr said that the Bureau of Prisons had adequate personal protective equipment for its staff on hand at the outset of the crisis, but that some materials had to be moved around the country to the most affected areas. However, he said the current supply would last only about 30 to 45 days.

“There’s definitely a need to increase our stockpiles of PPE because we’d like more robust usage of it throughout the system,” he said.

Most prisoners in the U.S. are in state and local jails. Several governors and mayors have announced plans to release prisoners early as part of efforts to combat the spread of the virus.