NY Raises Alarm After 1st Federal Inmate Tests Positive

By Jody Godoy
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Law360 (March 22, 2020, 7:31 PM EDT) -- After the first federal inmate tested positive for the novel coronavirus in Brooklyn, officials in New York called on the U.S. Department of Justice to cease "business as usual" on Sunday, the same day Harvey Weinstein was reportedly isolated in state prison after testing positive.

The Metropolitan Detention Center was informed on Saturday that an inmate who had been taken to a hospital after complaining of chest pains tested positive, according to a report by The Associated Press.

On Sunday, the Niagara Gazette reported that Weinstein, the movie mogul who was convicted of rape and sexual assault, was one of two inmates at Wende Correctional Facility who had tested positive. Weinstein was recently sentenced to 23 years in prison.

As those cases were made public, local officials called for urgent action to diminish the risk posed by crowded federal prisons.

In a telephonic press conference on Sunday, Anthony Sanon, head of the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents corrections officers at the MDC, said that the inmate had presented symptoms but did not have health problems when brought in. Staffers who interacted with the person have been quarantined, he said.

"We need to take this very seriously," Sanon said, calling for hand santizer, soap and N95 masks for staff in the facility. Masks have been in short supply as hospitals cope with a growing number of patients battling the potentially fatal respiratory illness.

Sanon also called on DOJ officials to halt all inmate transfers. The BOP limit transfers on March 13, but clarified on Thursday that inmates would be screened for symptoms of COVID-19 before being moved and that transfers may be necessary to avoid overcrowding. Recent studies suggest that many infected by the virus may be contagious without symptoms.

"We need to stop all movement in the Bureau of Prisons," Sanon said. "We need to be on a national lockdown until we actually get the situation under control."

Sanon was joined by House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who has already called on the DOJ to ramp down arrests of nonviolent offenders, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., and New York City Councilmember Brad Lander, as well as David Patton, head of the Federal Defenders in New York, and public health experts.

The group called on the DOJ to arrest and seek detention in only the most necessary of cases and to work with stakeholders to swiftly identify at-risk and other inmates, such as those awaiting trial or sentencing for nonviolent crimes, who can be released on bail. According to the BOP's website, the MDC and Manhattan's Metropolitan Correctional Center have more than 2,300 inmates between them.

Dr. Brie Williams, Director of the Criminal Justice & Health Program at University of California San Francisco, stressed that prisons are likely breeding grounds for the disease and that they are not as isolated from the larger community as it would seem.

Corrections officers travel back and forth, and inmates with acute cases will have to be taken to hospitals for treatment, she said.

"Unlike cruise ships, prisons and jails are not sealed off from the outside world," Williams said.

The DOJ has made going after coronavirus-related scams a priority, and announced its first enforcement action on Sunday against a company peddling fake coronavirus vaccines. All U.S. attorney's offices have been told to appoint coordinators to tackle such cases.

However, federal prosecutors have continued to oppose requests for bail and other forms of release from inmates worried about the looming health risks posed by the spread of the virus.

Federal judges are being increasingly asked for release or sentence modifications in light of the pandemic. At least two judges this week granted such requests; others did not.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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