Judge Sees Virus Risk to Prisons but Denies Inmate Release

WASHINGTON (CN) — Amid escalating fears that Covid-19 will spread like wildfire across the U.S. prison system, a top federal judge conceded Tuesday that the risk is higher for inmates penned in close quarters.

“The risk presented by the pandemic is clearly serious, and the court acknowledges that risk may be greater in a jail environment where defendants are housed in close proximity to one another,” Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington, D.C., wrote in a docket order.

Advocacy groups and lawmakers are increasingly calling for the release of some prisoners from the more than 100 facilities that hold over 175,000 inmates across the U.S. As of Tuesday, three inmates and three federal correctional staff across the country had tested positive for the novel coronavirus known as Covid-19, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The statement by Howell came Tuesday as the chief judge rejected an emergency motion to release Jessica Oseguera González, the daughter of one of Mexico’s most wanted cartel leaders, after her attorneys argued that continued incarceration while awaiting trial posed a “grave public health threat.”

“Detention facilities, such as the facility in which Ms. Gonzalez is currently incarcerated, pose an even more substantial danger, given the sheer number of inmates sharing close quarters, without the ability to stay away from one another and stop the spread of the virus,” defense attorney Steven McCool wrote in the motion.

But federal prosecutors continued to warn that González, 33, is a high flight risk. The defendant, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Mexico, has pleaded not guilty to charges related to property dealings with five business entities designated by U.S. officials as narcotic traffickers.

The government persuaded Howell not to release González, arguing the D.C. Department of Corrections has taken “aggressive precautions” to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The measures include suspending all in-person visits and volunteer activities, revving up cleaning efforts and staffing “vigilant medical personnel on alert for symptoms.”

In a bipartisan push to protect at-risk inmates, lawmakers led by Senators Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, recommended Monday in a letter to Attorney General William Barr and Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal that nonviolent offenders with chronic medical conditions or over the age of 60 be transferred to home detention.

“Conditions of confinement do not afford individuals the opportunity to take proactive steps to protect themselves, and prisons often create the ideal environment for the transmission of contagious disease,” the 14-senator group wrote Monday.

González has shown no signs of having contracted Covid-19 since being arrested last month. Judge Howell argued the risk of coming down with the disease that has so far infected at least 49,000 Americans and killed 600 does not alter the factors weighing heavily in favor of pretrial detention.

“In any event, the risk of contracting Covid-19 pertains [to] whether the defendant is released or detained, and any heightened risk posed by pretrial detention does not alter the balance of the statutory factors Congress prescribed for determining the propriety of detention, which continue to weigh heavily in favor of detention,” the judge wrote.

The order came just hours after Guantanamo Bay reported its first confirmed Covid-19 case, a U.S. Navy sailor who tested positive for the respiratory disease.

Officials said in a statement they are implementing an “aggressive mitigation strategy” to minimize the spread of Covid-19 and protect naval officers stationed on the base in Cuba.

“The sailor is currently isolated and restricted in movement in accordance with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Contact tracing performed by public health officials is also underway,” they said.

The Justice Department, responsible for overseeing the Federal Bureau of Prisons, did not respond to a request for comment before publication.

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