In­mates fear­ful of virus ar­gue for re­lease

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - NEWS -

NEW YORK >> Coro­n­avirus has be­come a “get out of jail” card for hun­dreds of low-level in­mates across the coun­try, and even hard­timers 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.”

As of Wed­nes­day, two fed­eral Bureau of Pris­ons staff mem­bers have tested pos­i­tive for coro­n­avirus, a per­son fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter told the AP. One of the staffers works in a cor­rec­tional fa­cil­ity in Ber­lin, New Hamp­shire, and the other works in an of­fice in Grand Prairie, Texas, but there were still no con­firmed cases among any of the 175,000 in­mates in the BOP sys­tem, the per­son said.

JAVIER GALEAN — JONATHAN CARROLL

This com­bi­na­tion of pho­tos shows Michael Co­hen, left, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s for­mer per­sonal at­tor­ney, out­side his apart­ment build­ing in New York, and drug king­pin Gil­berto Ro­driguez Ore­juela, leav­ing a se­cu­rity prison in Tunja, Colom­bia, be­fore ex­tra­di­tion to the U.S. in 2004.

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