Judiciary Chair Nadler, Reps. Velázquez and Jeffries, Doctors, and Public Defenders Called on Federal Courts to Stop Processing Nonviolent Arrests and Release At Risk Individuals After First Federal Inmate Diagnosed with COVID-19

NEW YORK — House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (NY-10), Congressmember Nydia Velázquez (NY-07), and Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08), joined by David Patton of the Federal Defenders, Anthony Sanon of the union representing corrections officers at the Metropolitan Detention Center, correctional medical experts Dr. Brie Williams and Dr. Jonathan Giftos, and Councilmember Brad Lander held a virtual press conference today calling on the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York to release at risk inmates from federal jails and halt new arrests for nonviolent charges. On Saturday, a man detained at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn became the first person in the federal prison system to test positive for COVID-19. Video of the press conference is available for download here.  

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler sent a letter Thursday to Attorney General William Barr, urging the DOJ to move quickly to protect the 250,000 people in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons and U.S. Marshals: “We urge you to put in place measures to ensure that both the flow of prisoners into federal facilities is slowed significantly and that prisoners who can and should be released are released forthwith. We cannot wait any longer to take action. In spite of the recent national emergency declaration and the fact that state and local prosecutorial agencies and courts across the country have made adjustments to their charging policies and are releasing prisoners who are at high risk of getting sick, it appears that it is “business as usual” in many U.S. Attorney’s offices. If true, this is deeply distressing.”

“With news of the first federally incarcerated person testing positive for COVID-19 at Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn in my district, I believe rapid, proactive department-wide steps are in order to protect the health and safety of those detained and staff at these facilities, alike,” said Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez. “I urge the Department and the Bureau to exercise existing authority to grant compassionate release of incarcerated people who are elderly or have underlying health conditions, and who pose no risk to public safety. I further urge federal prisons and jails to implement streamlined procedures to release individuals who have not been convicted of any crimes and are awaiting trial in prison or jail. Lastly, I ask that the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices exercise maximum restraint in terms of bringing additional individuals into the court and jail system. Adding to our prison population carries great health risk at this time and should only be done when an individual presents imminent risk of harm.”

The first inmate at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn who was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Saturday night was arrested within the last week on a nonviolent charge. Federal public defenders called on the United States District Attorney’s Office for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York engage with representatives from the Court, the Bureau of Prisons and the defense bar, in conjunction with medical professionals and public health experts, to promptly identify inmates who are at high risk of serious illness or death if infected by the virus and work to determine who can and should be immediately released. They also call to limit any new arrests to only those cases presenting an immediate risk of violence.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our nation’s jails and prisons into ticking time bombs,” said David Patton, Executive Director of the Federal Defenders of New York. “This is no time for business as usual. Unless federal courts and federal prosecutors take immediate and bold action to reduce our federal prison population and limit the intake of new prisoners, we will face a humanitarian crisis of enormous magnitude.”

Over 570 people detained at the MDC in Brooklyn, one-third of the prison’s population, fall into the at risk category. An unknown number of additional inmates, likely as many as two hundred more, are at high risk and are detained at Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan.

“The possibility for accelerated transmission and poor health outcomes of COVID-19 in prisons and jails is extraordinarily high,” said Dr. Brie Williams, a Professor of Medicine at University of California San Francisco whose work focuses on health care in correctional settings, particularly for the elderly and chronically ill. “Coordinated, preemptive, thoughtful and decisive action around decreasing the population in prisons and jails with public health at its center will save lives in prisons, jails and in our communities. Business as usual will not.”

“Jails simply cannot protect patients and staff from a viral pandemic affecting the city,” said Dr. Jonathan Giftos, currently medical director at Project Renewal which provides medical care to NYC’s homeless population, and former Medical Director, Correctional Health Services at Rikers Island. “They are not closed systems; there is a tremendous flux of people in and out of the facility, including officers and other staff, who live in communities overwhelmed by positive cases. Mitigating efforts such as physical distancing and frequent hand-washing are impossible in jails. And it is impossible to effectively screen and isolate people who are symptomatic to protect others in custody — at MDC Brooklyn alone, nearly 1/3 (over 500 patients) are considered high-risk for complications of COVID19. And if they do become positive, there is very limited medical care available to them. The only measure that will meaningfully impact the spread and harm of Coronavirus in the jail-system is to depopulate – to release as many as possible to continue their cases in the community – with a focus on those at highest risk of complications.”

“Standing outside the Metropolitan Detention Center today, I can’t help but remember how thousands of us stood out here one year ago making noise so that the people inside who did not have heat in the dead of winter could hear that we were with them,” said Councilmember Brad Lander. “That was a humanitarian crisis for the people inside, but the guards and those of us outside could go home. This pandemic reminds us that the walls that we build to try to separate are a whole lot more permeable than we think. The virus does not respect prison walls. We are seeing today that the conditions we are imposing on people in there, unsafe, unsanitary and lack of physical distance, are also putting the guards, the lawyers, the doctors and all of us at risk. We have to raise our voices and demand action to protect everyone.”