COVID-19 Not a Reason to Release Prison Inmates

by Hans Bader

Criminals are being released from jail due to the coronavirus pandemic, especially in progressive states. But states should think twice. Letting criminals out won’t save lives. Instead, it will spread the disease far and wide, and increase the crime rate, including murders and rapes.

Supporters of releasing criminals say it will protect them from catching the virus in prison. But COVID-19 already is pervasive in our prisons, and many inmates are either asymptomatic carriers of the virus, or already had it and swiftly recovered from it. The fatality rate from the disease appears to be less than 1% for inmates, just as it is for many other demographics.

Inmates aren’t going to catch the disease a second time, much less die from it. But if they are released, asymptomatic inmates can infect lots of people. That includes inmates’ elderly relatives, who are much more likely to die of COVID-19 than criminals themselves, who tend to be younger and more able to cope with the virus.

Recently released inmates are testing positive for COVID-19, even when when they were screened before release, and did not show any symptoms until after being released. This is raising “concerns” that the disease “could spread to the communities where people return upon release.”

Sex offenders and murderers are being released from jail due to the coronavirus, enabling some of them to commit new crimes. ABC News reports:

A high-risk registered sex offender was arrested Thursday for allegedly exposing himself . . . just two weeks after a controversial early release from the Orange County Jail.

Seven inmates who were deemed high-risk sex offenders were released early in April by a court commissioner, triggering criticism and warnings from county law enforcement officials who said the release was not necessary because the jails were not overcrowded.

In Massachusetts, “Two convicted murderers from the North Shore are among the more than 200 inmates released by the Massachusetts Department of Correction” under a state Supreme Court order citing the coronavirus pandemic. One of the murderers “stabbed” her victim “108 times over the course of several hours,” an extreme form of torture.

In Washington State, a serial killer who murdered 49 women was nearly released in a push to release hundreds of violent criminals.

Releasing criminals will increase the crime rate, as studies show. The National Bureau of Economic Research has a web page titled “Sentence Enhancements Reduce Crime.” It discusses how California’s Proposition 8 reduced crime by keeping “repeat offenders” off of the streets. According to the study cited, “Because convicted criminals were serving longer sentences, years after the law’s change they were still locked up, rather than out on the streets committing crime.” Murderers sometimes commit murder again after being released from prison, even those released from prison at an advanced age.

Releasing criminals will not save many inmates’ lives. An inmate who catches COVID-19 is unlikely to die from it, and may not even show symptoms of the disease. In the prison in Michigan’s capital city, 75% of inmates had the “virus without symptoms.” A North Carolina prison “just tested all 700 people incarcerated. 444 of them tested positive. 90% had no symptoms,” notes Michael Bloch, a lawyer for criminal defendants. The Montgomery County (PA) jail tested every one of its 948 inmates for COVID-19. 177 of them tested positive. 171 of those 177 showed no symptoms, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

As lawyer John Hinderaker notes, “Testing has repeatedly found that 95% or more of the inmates who test positive for COVID-19 never knew they had it.” But they can still give it to other people, such as elderly relatives whose immune systems are weaker, and could die of coronavirus as a result.

Most inmates can’t safely be released, since they either have the virus, or are at prisons that lack the ability to test them, leaving unclear whether they are infected. For example, 80% of the prison population in Marion, Ohio, carry the virus. The Washington Post’s Radley Balko is an inmate advocate who wants to reduce prison populations. But as he concedes, “The more we learn about jails/prisons and COVID-19, the more it seems that most facilities fall into one of two categories: 1) Those with astonishingly high rates of infection 2) Those that aren’t testing.”

Despite such realities, a judge recently ordered federal officials to reduce the population of a detention center where criminals contracted COVID-19.

The overall incidence of COVID-19 in America’s prisons is unknown. The Associated Press reports that over 70% of tested inmates in America’s prisons have the coronavirus. But the infection rate among untested inmates is presumably a lot lower.

The number of inmates potentially released due to the coronavirus could be large.

In Virginia alone, large numbers of violent criminals could be released due to Governor Ralph Northam’s amendments to the state budget, which were approved by the Democratic legislature in late April. Citing the coronavirus epidemic, Northam amended the state budget to permit the state’s Department of Corrections to release criminals with less than a year remaining on their sentences, if they hadn’t committed certain extreme crimes. (Criminals are not eligible for release if they committed certain sexually-violent offenses, or certain types of premeditated murders, such as the killing of a cop or a child).

The criminals now eligible for release in Virginia include the following:

  • 30 convicted of sexual assault
  • 65 convicted of manslaughter
  • 3 convicted of non-capital murder
  • 102 convicted of abduction
  • 142 convicted of other sex offenses
  • 690 convicted of robbery
  • 696 convicted of assault
  • 24 convicted of arson 
  • 200 convicted of weapons charges

Several dozen criminals have already been released in Virginia under this budget amendment. I am not aware of any inmate known to have coronavirus being released under this specific provision, although some other recently released Virginia inmates do indeed have coronavirus.

Hans Bader, an attorney, lives in Northern Virginia. This column was published originally at

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23 responses to “COVID-19 Not a Reason to Release Prison Inmates

  1. Just from the perspective of a truly rehabilitated prisoner who wants nothing more than to return to society, find a job, and live a normal life, now would be an extremely bad time to do that. Those who rightly or wrongly maintain a bias against former felons would now have an additional reason to avoid employing them, even assuming that there were jobs to be had for anyone with a solid work history. I am not disagreeing with any of the legitimate reasons given in the post–just thought this was an aspect not covered. In other words, even those who in normal times think too many people are incarcerated, might want to rethink their position under today’s circumstances.

    • Whatever you do, whether now in prison or otherwise, stay the hell out of a Virginia state supervised nursing home.

    • Yep – I’m of the same view. I suspect Bader is not in favor of parole at anytime and even if 100 go free and on to productive lives, if one does not – it’s “proof” that parole is wrong.

      If Bader was somewhere in the middle and supported parole but opposed this – then his argument would have merit.

      And notice how articles that he writes goes through the echo chamber…

      Lets hear from some folks who support parole but perhaps are not in favor of this.

  2. Well, I dunno about the merits of the opinion piece, but it’s an excellent repository of right wingnut links.

  3. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    In 2017, the average cost of housing a prisoner in Virginia was 85 dollars and 83 cents. I wonder how much cash the state is saving in the COVID releases?

  4. Last I heard it cost about 30K a year to incarcerate someone when you include all costs – to include health care.

    And I suspect it’s the health care aspect that is an issue… Prisons just do not have much more than minimal medical staff and a prison full of infected has got to be a serious threat.

    Having said that, I’m not in favor of the prisons releasing folks so it makes the prisons job easier… that’s just creating an externality for someone else to have to do with.

  5. Confinement to prison needs to have some kid of definition. “Confinement” doesn’t mean being subject to unending assault, rape or exposure to dread disease. Given the overcrowding in prison COVID19 represents an escalation the sentencing that was decided.

    Once upon a time, like one month ago, we were going to release some prisoners incarcerated for non-violent crimes near the end of their sentences. This would help relieve overcrowding and allow for more effective social distancing. Fine.

    Now we are releasing rapists, kidnappers and other violent felons? What happened to the non-violent concept?

    Given that possession of small amounts of marijuana will become a minor offense on July 1 I’d release anybody incarcerated for possession or anybody who had their sentence extended for possession (if they are within the extension period).

    The point from LGABRIEL is legitimate. How will a newly released prisoner support himself or herself in this economic environment?

    There are plenty of empty dorm rooms at Virginia colleges and universities. Maybe the non-violent prisoners can be “spread out” into those dorm rooms and housed and fed for awhile. If the prisoners are safe enough to release they must be safe enough to “confine to quarters” in one of the old dorms at UVA.

    • re: ” Now we are releasing rapists, kidnappers and other violent felons? What happened to the non-violent concept?”

      yup, that worries….

      in terms of home – my understanding that I got from Dick is that they cannot be released unless they have a stable home situation. They are not released into the “wild”.

      • How stable is any home situation these days? What might have seemed stable in April could be very unstable by June. Turn our colleges into halfway houses and provide some support. Releasing prisoners into an impossible economic situation is almost as bad as keeping them in overcrowded jails subject to a higher than average chance of contracting COVID19.

        As far as I know UVa hasn’t furloughed or laid off any employees. Even the contractors are being taken care of (to an extent). Give UVa the $86 / day and fill the dorms with low risk inmates. Send the homeless to George Mason.

        If you think the anti-lockdown protests have been bad wait until the full measure of economic chaos hits Virginia. Charlottesville will look like no more than a dress rehearsal for what’s to come.

        Releasing prisoners back to communities where they have no chance of becoming employed is no help to anybody – not the prisoners, not society at large.

        • Sometimes to my chagrin, I agree in principle with DJ – less so nowadays that a year or two ago -he’s gone rogue.

          In concept, I agree, we need to find a different way to deal with convicts with violent histories than just release them even though Dick makes the case that if they have served their time and had good behavior, that “justice” says than they have paid their debt.

          some of us do not accept this… it will never be acceptable for those who committed heinous crimes and it would be so much easier if the Dept of Corrections could focus on release of the non-violent.

          I think once a college agrees to house prisoners, it’s pretty much over with them going back to being an “institution of higher learning” but who knows..

          The bigger issue is that College Dorms are not designed as prisons – even low security prisons and who is going to pay for the conversion and the additional staffing?

          We argue til the cows come home about how govt spending is the worst evil there could ever be – then the most strident anti-govt types turn around on a dime and advocate high-dollar govt spending as a “solution”. Heckfire..they sound just like libwits!

    • Send the murderers and rapists to NW D.C. Start with the homes of the Post’s editorial board. And Bezos’ mansion. He’s not there that often.

  6. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    We could use the old sanitorium in Burkittsville.

    • Listening to Dick – it sounds like money for additional staffing and converting to a modern design prison would be an issue ..

      Could be interesting seeing the prisons and the schools making the case for more money – when the budget folks are trying to cut everything in sight.

  7. Most of Hans Bader’s examples are from other states. Let’s look at what is happening in Virginia prisons.

    COVID-19 is not “pervasive” in Virginia prisons. DOC houses about 29,000 offenders. As of 5 p.m. yesterday, a cumulative total of 571 offenders had tested positive for the disease, with 3 deaths. Of the 40+ facilities operated by the agency, positive cases had been detected in only 8 of them.

    When DOC offenders are being released, either on parole or after they have finished their sentences, they are screened for COVID-19. A few tested positive at the time of their release. DOC had no legal authority to delay their release or hold them. According to the agency, it coordinated their release with VDH.

    Bader makes the inflammatory statement that sex offenders and murderers are being released from jail as a result of the coronavirus. Not in Virginia. The link he provides regarding sex offenders is for a case in California. The link for murderers is for a person paroled in Virginia, whose parole is not linked to the pandemic. (That parole was one that Kerry Dougherty complained about and which we discussed on this blog.)

    Many localities in Virginia, through cooperation among judges, Commonwealth’s attorneys, jails, and law enforcement, are limiting the number of nonviolent offenders in jails. The methods range from releasing accused persons on bond to furloughing nonviolent inmates to home incarceration. I have heard of no one accused or convicted of a violent offense released from a jail due to the pandemic.

    As for the Governor’s Early Release Plan, Bader presents a long list of violent offenders who are eligible for release under the plan. No source for that data, other than a blog post by someone from Virginia Beach, is provided. Furthermore, just because someone may meet the statutory criteria of having less than a year to serve, it does not mean he will meet DOC’s additional criteria, such as risk level and good time earning level. See my discussion of this here: It is noteworthy that Mr. Bader does not list
    the offenses previously committed by the less than 100 inmates that had actually been released under the Early Release Plan.

    • By the way, I am on the record as saying that I do not think the Early Release Plan makes much sense in the context of dealing with COVID-19.
      At the same time, I feel that any misinformation about it needs to be corrected.

      • I think what bugs me about Bader and his ilk (like Kerry) is that he does not even pretend to present an even-handed critique.

        It’s all over-the-top “anti” with borderline misinformation.
        He’s good at it but not in a way that I’d admire or even respect.

        You can pretty much expect that from his posts and I DO find myself wondering why Jim gives him a platform for such slanted views but Bader is not he only one these days.

        Compare and contrast that with Dick’s Blog posts. I would be downright shocked if he engaged the way that Bader does.

        thank you Dick!

    • Going back to your earlier post, I still find the logic missing behind making “felony weapons offenses” the number two type of candidate for release while imposing significant restrictions on gun rights. That could make sense only to an editorial writer or TV talking head. I’m not troubled by the Red Light Law or expanded background checks but the idea that a law-abiding person can only purchase one handgun per month is off the charts.

      More war on the deplorables.

  8. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    I think Mr. Bader wins. We read it and there were 19 comments made. I thought the article generated good discussion. I learned quite a bit.

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