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Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter Monday to Attorney General Bill Barr asking him to “release as many prisoners as possible” as federal prisons work to deal with uniquely difficult circumstances during the coronavirus pandemic.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, sent the letter Monday in response to the death of the first federal prisoner due to the coronavirus and the hospitalization of one guard who worked in the same facility.
“We call on you, in the most urgent terms, to do the right thing and exercise this authority [to modify prisoners’ sentences] and immediately move to release medically-compromised, elderly and pregnant prisoners from the custody of the BOP,” the letter reads. “In addition, we urge that you use every tool at your disposal to release as many prisoners as possible, to protect them from COVID-19.”
The letter goes on to criticize the Justice Department for not moving fast enough to release prisoners by placing administrative roadblocks in their way, and express concern that the Bureau of Prisons might not have enough equipment to release and track all vulnerable inmates.
“Your memorandum states that any individuals released because of the COVID-19 pandemic will be released with location monitoring,” the letter from Nadler and Bass says. “If this is the case, we ask that you ensure that there are enough resources to provide monitoring equipment free of charge to those individuals released and that you ensure that there is enough equipment available, so that no one is kept behind bars because of a lack of availability of equipment.”
The pair of Democrats also bring up a similar concern as one Republican congressman, Rep. Fred Keller of Pennsylvania, who last week said he plans to introduce a bill in the House aimed at halting the movement of prisoners within federal corrections facilities.
“We are familiar with BOP’s directive suspending internal movement during the COVID19 pandemic, with limited exceptions,” Nadler and Bass say in their letter. “Unfortunately, I have heard multiple reports that BOP is transporting prisoners outside of the limited exceptions BOP has enumerated.”
Keller has called on leadership within the Department of Justice to crack down on the movement of prisoners.
“While I hope, given the national urgency to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, any legislation stopping BOP prisoner movement can pass Congress quickly, it is just one avenue I am pursuing,” he told Fox News. “The fastest way to stop inmate movement is for those in charge of this process to see the danger continued inmate movement poses to BOP employees and their communities and stop it immediately.”
Prisons are at high risk during the spread of an infectious disease due to their close quarters and communal spaces, which make social distancing difficult. Hand sanitizer is even banned due to its high alcohol content.
Fox News’ Hollie McKay contributed to this report.