Three New York Congress members tell feds to spring non-violent offenders from jail

An NYC Department of Corrections officers strolls a corridor in the Queens House of Detention. (Photo by Mark Hallum)

Elected officials said Sunday that they are telling federal agencies to cut the “business as usual” attitude toward incarceration and release non-violent offenders and elderly convicts who pose no risk to the public to protect their health from the spread of coronavirus.

Congress Members Nydia Velázquez, Jerrold Nadler and Hakeem Jeffries held a virtual rally from the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn that asked for the U.S. Attorneys Offices and the courts to identify individuals eligible for release under these demands.

David Patton from the Federal Defenders of New York told reporters on Sunday that roughly a third of the detainees in the MDC are vulnerable to COVID-19 and could die if exposed.

“Yesterday, the first inmate in the country in the Bureau of Prisons system tested positive right here at the MDC for coronavirus,” Patton said. “These are places that particularly susceptible to contagion; they are not sanitary, social distancing is not a possibility, they’re overcrowded and this is a real disaster waiting to happen.”

Nadler said it was “incumbent” on the federal government to protect the lives of incarcerated folks and that pre-trial individuals are no exception.

“They’ve got to stop doing business as usual and only bringing cases when they are absolutely necessary for public safety,” Patton continued. “The second request is that they work with us to get people out of these facilities.”

Velázquez issued a letter the Federal Bureau of Prisons to ask what the agency is doing to limit the threat to prisoners in facilities under their purview as well as staff while highlighting that some of those effected may not even be guilty of a crime.

“Let’s keep in mind that of MDC, Brooklyn, and MCC in Manhattan, the majority of those detained are awaiting trial and have not – have not – been convicted,” Velázquez said. “I also believe that the U.S. Attorney’s office should exercise maximum restraint in terms of bringing addition individuals into the court and jail system.”

Also pointed out by Velázquez was the fact that both the private and public sectors have taken measures and changed their operations to suit the current situation and the incarceration system should be no different.

The call goes along with the Legal Aid Society’s lawsuit in state Supreme Court to release 116 individuals in pretrial detention or being held on a parole violation at local jails who are at high risk to COVID-19.

Corey Stoughton, Attorney-in-Charge of the Special Litigation Unit with the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, made similar appeal to the humanist side of government that sending someone to a jail facility like those on Rikers Island, run by the city of New York at this time could be a “death sentence” without even a guilty verdict.