Calif. increases number of inmate releases over virus concerns


In this Aug. 16, 2016, file photo, a row of general population inmates walk in a line at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. California state prison officials say in a July 27, 2020, court filing that as many as 17,600 inmates are eligible for release due to the coronavirus, 70% more than previously estimated and a total that victims and police say includes dangerous criminals who should stay locked up. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California prison officials say as many as 17,600 inmates may be released early due to the coronavirus, as the disease spreads widely through detention facilities across the state.

That’s 70% more than previously estimated and a total that victims and police say includes dangerous criminals who should stay locked up.

The earlier releases also are causing consternation as probation officers and community organizations scramble to provide housing, transportation and other services for inmates who may pose a public health risk because several hundred have been paroled while still contagious.

“It has just been a total madhouse, quite frankly, and we’re doing this in the midst of a pandemic,” Karen McDaniel, the statewide transportation and services liaison between community groups and corrections officials, told the Associated Press.

As the virus runs rampant in detention centers across the nation, Attorney General William Barr has directed the federal prison system to reduce the prison population by making more liberal use of home confinement and to expand the criteria for such transfers.

In California, officials have been under intense pressure for months to free more inmates, as more than 8,000 incarcerated people have been sickened during the pandemic and at least 51 have died. There have been nearly 2,000 cases in prison employees, 8 of whom have died.

A high-profile case at San Quentin State Prison — in which officials accidentally transferred infected people into a virus-free inmate population — has ratched up the heat further.

Demonstrators who chained themselves to the gate outside Gov. Gavin Newsom’s home claim he has “presided over dozens of preventable deaths in state prisons” by not freeing more incarcerated people.

But for the victims of inmates who could be released due to the virus, the idea that convicted criminals will get their punishments shortened is hard to swallow.

In one case, a woman convicted of murdering a man in 1998 was released after serving 19 years of her 84 years-to-life sentence. “Why is an inmate’s rights more important than a victim’s?” his outraged sister, Dena Love, said to AP.

California Police Chiefs Association president Eric Nuñez acknowledged the dire situation in the state’s prisons, but said he is distressed that some inmates are being released “without a consideration for the larger impact on public safety.” He told AP that the chiefs want to work with prison officials on improving the decision-making process.

Officials say Corrections Secretary Ralph Diaz is likely to block around 5,500 of the earlier releases, in part because many are serving life prison sentences, AP reports.

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