Should we be Releasing Prisoners to Protect them from COVID-19?

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(Drawing/Amy Zhou)

Will Sedgley, News Associate

To prevent the spread of COVID-19 in jails, many prisons across the country have started releasing prisoners. Currently, there are over 2.3 million prisoners in US jails, and news outlets, such as the Washington Post, call them “sitting ducks.” House Democrats have called on Attorney General Bill Barr to “release as many prisoners as possible.” It is believed that the close quarters and lack of hygiene in these prisons will allow COVID-19 to spread rapidly, prompting the question: Should US prisons release prisoners early?

Proponents of the idea to release prisoners argue that releasing them will not only save their lives, but also those of correctional officers. Furthermore, jails are not confined spaces; visitors come often, and they have the potential to spread the virus once they leave the prison. So too can guards, attorneys, and so on. Many argue that by releasing prisoners, we are sparing the entire community from potentially catching this virus, rather than solely the convicted felons.

On the other hand, opponents of this idea argue that releasing criminals into the streets undermines the country’s legal system and potentially endangers the safety of many people in communities near prisons. Many, such as Fox News Pundit Tucker Carlson, believe releasing criminals is “a recipe for disaster.” Carlson further goes on to argue that the rise in gun sales is due to the fear of the release of many of these criminals. 

Despite the two sides of the argument, there is room for a middle ground. Senior Harjap Singh, advocates “for the release of non-violent criminals, such as those convicted for marijuana offenses, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the jails and to protect the lives of the guards, as well.” Singh reflects the view of many, believing that criminals convicted for minor offenses should be released, while those convicted for serious and violent crimes should not. Releasing nonviolent criminals would be the best possible way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in jails and their surrounding communities, and to protect more people.

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