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Advocates Ask CDC to Recommend Decarceration During Pandemic

April 10, 2020

Stating that U.S. prisons and jails “are on the precipice of a public health catastrophe during this pandemic,” a coalition of advocacy, research and professional groups are asking federal health authorities to recommend aggressive release from custody and expanded access to health care to fight the coronavirus.

An April 9 letter to leaders at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that the agency's interim guidance last month on managing COVID-19 in correctional and detention facilities fell short of an adequate response. The letter states that chronic overcrowding in prisons, jails and detention centers undermines efforts at social distancing, while a culture of control supersedes a culture of care in correctional facilities.

The Drug Policy Alliance and the National Association of Social Workers are among the dozens of organizations that signed the letter, which cites as an example of the gravity of the crisis a COVID-19 infection rate at the Rikers Island facility in New York City that is seven times higher than the citywide rate.

The letter suggests that the CDC should recommend that prison authorities prioritize immediate release of elderly and medically vulnerable inmates, as well as early release of anyone within 18 months of release date. At the jail level, authorities should release individuals serving a misdemeanor sentence, the advocates suggest.

Also, “The CDC must emphasize the importance of Medicaid coverage in and out of correctional and detention facilities,” the letter states. It should ask governments to ensure that newly released Medicaid-eligible individuals can access care, including medication treatments for addiction. It also should encourage states that are able to reinstate Medicaid to incarcerated individuals pre-release to do so, the letter points out.

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