- - Thursday, April 2, 2020

While the coronavirus pandemic rages on, it touches and alters nearly every part of American society — and while many of us take for granted our ability to socially distance and stay home to avoid getting sick, our detained populations face an entirely different set of challenges.

As of writing this piece, 167 inmates (out of roughly 11,300) and 137 staff members at New York City’s Rikers Island detention facility have tested positive for COVID-19 — and at this point, that number can only exponentially increase. Prison populations have nowhere to go and nowhere to hide from the highly contagious epidemic, and finding a solution to the problem isn’t an easy one.

The far-left would have you believe that most every prisoner and detainee should be let out into the public for their own safety. Immediately upon the virus hitting our shores, some Democratic attorneys general began working to release portions of their prison population. The ACLU and leftist activist groups like RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) have seized on this pandemic to again call for the absolute shutdown of ICE detention centers — even encouraging detainees to protest, making the facilities potentially even more deadly.  

The concept that we would simply release large amounts of prisoners from detention and shut down ICE facilities isn’t well thought through. The main question one would ask in this instance is the easiest: Where would these people go?  

There are absolutely no jobs for detainees to transition into and therefore there would be little, if no money for them to provide for their own basic needs. They would nearly all immediately be thrown into a homeless, impoverished, potentially even higher risk population on the streets. In that scenario, a criminal would more than likely revert to crime in order to survive. And no, I’m not calling all detained immigrants criminals, but according to ICE data, roughly 51 percent of adults who have illegally crossed the border are convicted criminals or have pending criminal charges.

I find it even more increasingly out of touch that during the stimulus bill debate, members of Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez bizarrely asked for free health care and checks for illegal immigrants, before taking into account what our imprisoned Americans are potentially facing during this pandemic. 

On the other side of the spectrum are the far-right, who believe absolutely no one should be released from prison or detention until they serve the full term of their sentence. I would personally lean in this direction if not for the pandemic and poor treatment at many prisons for these convicted criminals. We need to keep in mind that even though prisoners and detainees have broken a law or illegally crossed the border, America doesn’t write off their lives — after all, they were sentenced to prison time, not death.

With the combination of unsanitary conditions at many of our facilities — including RIkers Island, and prisoners living on top of one another, the pandemic could quickly sweep through and kill a large portion of the population. This isn’t fair or humane — even if they committed the crimes that put them there.

The solution to this issue — as always — may come from a middle-ground approach. Perhaps a combination of releasing some prisoners, but using alternate ways to improve the conditions in prisons and detention facilities is the answer.

I don’t think many of us would disagree that if a person committed a minor, non-violent crime and had served a majority of their sentence, they could be released. Those inmates would also more likely than not have a home to return to. This could open up beds, providing prisons an opportunity to space inmates out to at least a six feet from each other. The same is not true for illegal immigrants, who, upon leaving a detention facility have nearly nowhere to go, except the streets.

In addition to releasing that small percentage of the population, perhaps it’s time to take a look at who’s managing our detention facilities and prisons. The horrifying descriptions of conditions at Rikers Island will be just the tip of the iceberg of what we hear from publicly run facilities in the coming weeks. Privately run facilities don’t face the same supply chain demand that public ones do  For instance, their sanitation products don’t fall under the greater purview of a city of state, and therefore can’t be diverted to other public needs, leaving less for those to be detained. 

There’s no easy solution to this dilemma — but the answers aren’t the extremes. Neither shutting down both prison and ICE facilities, nor keeping inmates and detainees in unsanitary facilities where they are exponentially more likely to catch coronavirus are reasonable solutions. As a nation, we must protect all those we have detained — and the solution to the current issues comes from compromise — and the private sector. 

• Tim Young is a political comedian and author of “I Hate Democrats/I Hate Republicans” (Post Hill Press).

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