Get out of jail? Inmates fearful of virus argue for release

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FILE - In this Friday, July 13, 2018 file photo, inmates pass the time within their cell block at the Twin Falls County Jail in Twin Falls, Idaho. In March 2020, the COVID-19 coronavirus and its lingering threat has become a potential get out of jail card for inmates who argue its not a matter of if but when the deadly illness sweeps through tightly packed populations behind bars. (Pat Sutphin/The Times-News via AP)

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Coronavirus has become a “get out of jail" card for hundreds of low-level inmates across the country, and even hard-timers are seeking their freedom with the argument that it's not a matter of if but when the deadly illness sweeps through tightly packed populations behind bars.

Among those pleading for compassionate release or home detention are the former head of the Cali drug cartel, President Donald Trump's former personal attorney Michael Cohen, Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff and dozens of inmates at New York City’s Rikers Island, part of a jail system that lost an employee to the virus this week.

“He is in poor health. He is 81 years old," David Oscar Markus, the attorney for cocaine kingpin Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela, wrote in emergency court papers this week seeking his release after serving about half of a 30-year drug-trafficking sentence. “When (not if) COVID-19 hits his prison, he will not have much of a chance."

While widespread outbreaks of coronavirus behind bars have yet to happen, the frenzy of legal activity underscores a crude reality that's only beginning to sink in: America's nearly 7,000 jails, prisons and correction facilities are an ideal breeding ground for the virus, as dangerous as nursing homes and cruise ships but far less sanitary.

Stepped-up cleanings and a temporary halt to visitations at many lockups across the country in the midst of the crisis can't make up for the fact that ventilation behind bars is often poor, inmates sleep in close quarters and share a small number of bathrooms.

“Simply put, it's impossible to do social distancing,” said David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami.

The 81-year-old Madoff, who is serving a 150-year sentence for bilking thousands of investors in a $17.5 billion Ponzi scheme, had just asked last month to be released early in light of his terminal kidney disease. Now his attorney is calling on all at-risk federal prisoners to be released for their own safety because of the coronavirus.

“The federal prison system has consistently shown an inability to respond to major crises,” Madoff attorney Brandon Sample told The Associated Press. “My concerns are even more amplified for prisoners at federal medical centers and those who are aged.”