Brown Law has been contacted by many inmates and their families asking what relief is available for incarcerated individuals who are vulnerable to the coronavirus – whether because of age or medical condition. As of now, there are two groups that can potentially obtain relief: those who are detained while awaiting trial, and those who are nearing the end of their sentence. We will continue to monitor the situation and seek other types of relief to meet our clients’ needs.
In the meantime, one thing is becoming clear: it is only a matter of time before we see outbreaks in the jails and prisons across the country. It appears this is already occurring in New York.
This is hardly surprising. Inmates lack access to the most basic tools to fight against the spread of the virus, including, in some cases, hand sanitizer and soap. Social distancing is not an option for inmates who spend every minute of the day in close proximity with dozens of other men and women.
On top of this fear of becoming sick, family and legal visits have been suspended at many facilities, including all federal prisons. Not only are inmates dealing with unsafe, unsanitary conditions, but they are unable to see their loved ones or meet with their advocates.
Some steps have been taken to provide relief to specific populations of inmates and to slow the spread of COVID-19. In Baltimore City, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has vowed to stop prosecuting minor, non-violent crimes like drug possession, prostitution, or minor traffic offenses. In theory this may help stem the flow of new individuals into the system – but it does nothing to protect those who are already locked up. Mosby also requested that Governor Hogan release inmates over the age of 60, anyone approved for parole, and all prisoners scheduled to complete their sentences within the next year. However, Hogan dismissed the idea, stating his belief that inmates were likely safer in prison than if they were released.
Relief for at this point is generally limited. Unfortunately, for those actively serving their sentences, relief can likely only be granted either through the Governor (state sentences) or the President (federal sentences). However, there may be opportunities for relief for those who are in pretrial detention and those who are nearing completion of their sentences.
For pretrial detainees, it is possible to file motions for pretrial release using the outbreak of COVID-19 as justification to modify the conditions originally imposed by the court.
There may also be relief available for those who are close to completing their sentences. For example, we have seen cases in which federal inmates who were in half-way houses obtained court orders converting their status to home confinement.
These opportunities are certainly limited, but keep in mind that the situation is fluid and subject to change in the near future. If you have a vulnerable relative who is imprisoned, you should call your attorney and see what, if anything, can be done to help.