Jail safer than outside, US says amid mounting release bids

There have been only a handful of reports of infection in jails and prisons, mostly among employees. (AP pic)

NEW YORK: Jail and prison inmates across the US are asking judges to release them from custody because of the risk that they may contract the coronavirus while locked up under crowded, often unsanitary conditions.

Michael Avenatti, the celebrity lawyer convicted last month of trying to extort millions from Nike Inc, on Tuesday asked a New York federal judge to let him out on bail rather than keep him locked up in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he fears catching the virus while he awaits sentencing.

His lawyers said in a court filing that Avenatti, who shot to fame representing adult-film star Stormy Daniels in a lawsuit against President Donald Trump, was concerned because his MCC cell mate was recently removed with a severe cough and fever.

That and the otherwise deplorable conditions at MCC warranted Avenatti’s “temporary release on bail until this pandemic has ended”, the lawyers said.

Other requests have come both from defendants awaiting trial and those already serving sentences.

Several high-profile white-collar convicts, like Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen and securities manipulators Irfan and Omar Amanat, have asked to be let out, as well as at least one accused killer.

“It is hard to imagine a more virulent incubator for Covid-19,” Irfan Amanat’s lawyers wrote to a federal judge Tuesday asking for his release from a Brooklyn lockup.

Concerns that prisoner and detainee populations could be especially vulnerable to the virus are growing as unprecedented social-distancing measures take hold across the rest of society.

Advocates say prisons and jails, crowded and unsafe in the best of the times, are especially hazardous in a pandemic.

But so far no US court has set a prisoner free due to coronavirus fears.

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Brooklyn turned down an accused murderer’s request to be given bail rather than be locked up after prosecutors said there were no confirmed coronavirus cases among inmates awaiting trial in federal jails.

Federal prosecutors argued in another case that being locked up was probably safer than being free.

Jail is “by its very nature isolated from the outside world”, they said, opposing a request for home confinement by Clifford Taylor, who is currently in Manhattan’s MCC awaiting trial for allegedly possessing drugs and a handgun while on parole.

The government said Taylor had not shown that the apartment of his children’s mother, where he asked to be allowed to stay, would be any safer from the virus.

The judge has ordered a telephone hearing on Taylor’s motion for Thursday.

There have been only a handful of reports of infection in jails and prisons, mostly among employees.

A guard at New York City’s Rikers Island’s jail became the latest to test positive on Wednesday, his union said, adding that they lacked adequate protective equipment.

Advocacy groups have focused more of their attention on winning the release of those accused of non-violent offenses.

On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union sued an immigrant detention centre in the Seattle area, asking that detainees be evaluated for release based on their risk profile, including age and underlying medical conditions.

White-collar criminals largely fall into the non-violent category.

Cohen, who began serving a three-year prison sentence last May after pleading guilty to campaign-finance charges relating to his arrangement of hush-money payments to women who claim to have had affairs with Trump, is doing his time at a minimum-security prison camp at Otisville, New York.

Cohen asked Tuesday to be allowed to carry out the remainder of his sentence in home confinement, saying the federal Bureau of Prisons was “demonstrably incapable of safeguarding and treating” inmates who are forced to live together in close quarters.

Irfan Amanat’s lawyers asked the court to set him free, saying the 17 months he has spent in jail awaiting sentencing was punishment enough.

There are signs courts recognise the concerns. In northern California, US Magistrate Judge Nathanael Cousins on Monday outlined a procedure for reopening detention hearings based on the coronavirus fears.

“This public health crisis is serious and urgent,” Cousins said in his order.

“Counsel should not delay in evaluating whether any defendant should have his or her detention hearing reopened.”

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