One More Reason Not to Do Mass Prison Releases in Response to Covid-19

This article in USA Today reports that mass testing in a North Carolina prison revealed far more prisoners infected with the Covid-19 virus than was previously believed. This result provides an additional reason not to release large numbers of prisoners, although that implication evidently did not occur to USA Today.

Neuse State Prison in Goldsboro, North Carolina had an outbreak, and 39 prisoners tested positive. There are 700 total in the facility, and the prison officials decided to test them all.

The story says, “Within a week, infections had surged to 444.” Nonsense. Infections didn’t increase that quickly. The number of known cases of infection increased that quickly because knowledge increased. But the article does get one thing right:

Perhaps even more revealing: More than 90% of the newly diagnosed inmates displayed no symptoms, meaning that the deadly virus could have remained hidden had the state followed federal guidelines that largely reserve testing for people displaying common symptoms, such as fever and respiratory distress.

Now suppose that North Carolina had reacted to the outbreak by releasing untested prisoners. Nearly 58% of the prisoners in this facility were infected with the virus, did not have symptoms, and did not qualify for testing under the usual guidelines.

Had they been released, they would have posed a dual threat to the public. First, a large portion of released prisoners commit new crimes. Second, people who have the virus but no symptoms are carriers, spreading the epidemic and endangering the lives of more vulnerable people. They are in little danger, probably none, from exposure to others who also have the virus.

The article reports similar results from a prison in Ohio: 39% tested positive for the virus yet displayed no symptoms.

To the extent that early releases are necessary, as I have noted before, they should be limited to inmates convicted of relatively minor offenses who have only a short time left anyway. That is not many. Most state prison inmates in this country are in for violent crimes, a long string of crimes, or both. Few are sentenced to enough time to amount to a just sentence for the crimes they committed in the first place. No one should get off even easier for rape, mayhem, or robbery because of this virus.

These results suggest one more criterion. Anyone being considered for release due to Covid-19 should be tested for the virus. If he is already positive, there is no reason to release him early and ample reason not to.

Thanks to Hans Bader for the tip.