VIRGINIA Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said that the Virginia Parole Board is busy reviewing hundreds of cases to see if certain prisoners—specifically, geriatric inmates or those who were sentenced before 1996—can be released early in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Moran added that the releases must be “consistent with public safety,” and that only “low-level offenders” would be considered in order to “increase capacity by reducing the [prison] population” in case of an outbreak.

But is releasing prisoners during a pandemic really a good idea?

Moran admitted that there are “a number of challenges” the Parole Board is facing, chief among them the fact that there is no provision for parole in the Virginia Code, as the state legislature abolished it in 1995. However, parole can still be granted for prisoners who were sentenced prior to that date. And the board considers petitions for geriatric release for prisoners over the age of 65 who have served a minimum of five years of their sentence for crimes lower than a Class 1 felony, or over 60 who have served a minimum of 10 years.

Yet people over age 60 are the most likely age group to get seriously sick or die from coronavirus, which is currently more prevalent outside of prison.

The Department of Corrections is justifiably worried that the virus could spread like wildfire among its incarcerated population. On Tuesday, department officials announced that three inmates, one correctional officer in training, and a contract nurse at the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland tested positive for the virus. Another correctional officer at the Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake and an employee at the Norfolk Probation and Parole office were also infected.

At the governor’s press conference on Wednesday, Moran was asked about the release policy. He replied that two of the commonwealth’s 41 correctional facilities are in a “modified lockdown” and that the rest of the department is “following CDC guidelines”—which include quarantine and contact investigations. These are the same mitigation strategies that are being used throughout the commonwealth to contain the virus.

Moran added that the Parole Board is “working overtime” to release eligible prisoners, and that 96 individuals were released from custody in March—a 153 percent increase over the previous month. But those 96 inmates already released do not include hundreds of prisoners who have been let go from local jails. In Norfolk alone, around 250 prisoners were recently released.

“The Parole Board is expediting reviews for all parole-eligible individuals. In order to be considered for release, they must have a ‘home plan’ and must have met reentry criteria. As for the specifics, those are ever-changing, as the Parole Board is quite literally working around the clock to make decisions,” the Department of Public Safety told The Free Lance–Star.

Where are all these convicts supposed to go during a pandemic, when everything except essential businesses remain closed under the governor’s executive order? And how will local social service agencies be able to help them when tens of thousands of Virginians who have already lost their jobs also need assistance with housing, medical care and food?

With most criminal trials suspended by order of the chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, fewer new inmates are entering the system, which should relieve at least some overcrowding as those who were already scheduled for release exit. And since correctional facilities are not allowing any visitors or volunteers to enter, the chances of outside contagion have been dramatically reduced. Prison may actually be safer than the local grocery store.

Testing of correctional staff and all the remaining inmates should be done immediately to identify any undiagnosed infections, followed by strict quarantine if warranted. As many people have pointed out, prisoners may have violated the law, but they do not deserve the death penalty.

However, the chances of picking up the coronavirus in some communities may be even greater than remaining in prison, where food, shelter and medical care are provided. Everybody else in Virginia is already on a modified lockdown too, so requiring the prison population to maintain strict social isolation is not an additional punishment.

It would be a senseless tragedy to release elderly prisoners early, only to inadvertently sentence them to death by coronavirus on the outside.

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