Releasing Prisoners is Essential for Protecting Inmates, Officers and Communities from COVID-19 | Opinion

As a former deputy Sheriff, detective, state and federal prosecutor, Sheriff, and head of corrections in Wisconsin and Colorado, I consider myself a strong law and order advocate. Despite a few efforts and a good deal of media coverage of the problems in prisons, many Governors and legislators are not paying sufficient attention to the critical need to do more to limit the harms of the corona virus in prisons.

Curves are flattening in some parts of the world, but not in prisons. Reports are that in one facility, 70 percent of the prisoners have tested positive for the virus. To protect prisoners, staff, and their communities, we need the release of prisoners who can safely be moved to other settings and provide social distancing for those who remain. Corrections cannot solve this problem alone nor are lockdowns with no access to needed services the route to take.

In the last few weeks, dozens of lawsuits have been filed and allege that the prison officials are not following the Constitution. Instead, prisoners claim that administrators are being deliberately "indifferent to serious medical needs." But rather than argue about how that legal standard applies, our time and resources should and can be spent differently.

Governors and legislators must work now to assist Corrections in releasing non-violent prisoners so as to prevent devastating consequences to corrections staff, inmates, and the communities where prisons are located. Even as significant problems exist now in many facilities, there still is a window in which to make real change.

In most states, under current population levels, social distancing in prisons isn't going to work. Large dining rooms, dormitories, double bunking make distancing difficult if not impossible. Even in "super max" prisons where inmates are isolated, when they are moved staff has body to body contact with them. When you add state corrections shortages of correctional officers and medical staff, throw in a rapidly spreading, deadly virus, you have a recipe for disaster.

Elected officials and medical experts are pleading for citizens to stay home, socially distance themselves, and do everything possible to flatten the curve. To apply these principles to prisons requires changing the population levels. Many prisons across the Nation are in small communities with health care facilities not equipped to handle large-scale medical issues. If one doesn't care about inmates think of the staff and these communities. Staff in many prison systems exposed to the virus put at risk their families, who in turn can spread it in these small communities.

If elected officials are serious about flattening the virus curve, inmates need to be released to allow for social distancing in prisons, allow medical staff to have lower numbers to treat in the event of an outbreak, and the space to quarantine.

When I led corrections in Wisconsin, I was at a medium security female facility when I asked the warden: "With proper supervision, how many of these females could be released?" She immediately replied, "all of them." Of course, there will be exceptions. Some inmates have no place to go and letting them out would not help the problem. And some people serving time for non-violent offenses may not be suitable for release for specific reasons.

But we can do it a lot to reduce the numbers in prison. What governors and legislators need to know is that, once they make the commitment to find ways to release, they have many tools to make it happen.

First, some states already have laws in place that give governors powers to do more. Many governors have authority to grant reprieves, parole, or clemency. Thousands of prisoners are in the queue for parole. Neither governors nor parole boards should delay release because prisoners have not finished programs that are functionally inaccessible. And governors should call on their correction director to use what other options they have. In at least one State, the Corrections Director has the authority to determine placement and can move people to less congested settings.

Second, with bi-partisan support, laws could quickly be passed enacting "prison without walls' statutes which would allow corrections officials to release non-violent offenders on monitors.

Third, there are a number of ways to release, and the most vulnerable—including the elderly and people with special health needs—should get prompt attention. For example, most states have minimum—security facilities, where offenders have a year or less on their sentences. Let them out, monitor, and use the space they left for higher security prison inmates to have social distancing.

Public safety is always number one in the corrections business, and that has to include protecting staff, and the communities from a deadly virus by doing everything we can to keep our prisons medically safe. Full prisons are infection factories just by their nature.

When this virus consumes a prison, and it will unless more steps are taken immediately to assist corrections officials, the harms are enormous. Release those that can be safely released and allow overworked corrections staff to have a few more tools to use, quarantine space and social distancing.

Rick Raemisch is the former Executive Director of the Colorado and Wisconsin Departments of Corrections.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​