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March 26, 2020; Bismarck Tribune and the Press of Atlantic City

While many Americans started week three of an at-home lifestyle to protect themselves from the global pandemic caused by the rapid-fire spread of COVID-19—ordering takeout, figuring out Zoom, and sharing social media posts—systems serving vulnerable populations grapple with the real-world consequences of not being able to apply suggested best practices to limit the potential spread of the virus. Human services nonprofits with dwindling budgets have been forced to strategize around how to protect not only clients in group housing and shelters, but the workers who run their services. First responders face a daily battle in protecting themselves from the spread. And the ACLU has worked to bring attention to the plight of another group who will be impacted by the virus: the incarcerated and those in detention centers, where communal living and overcrowding is a way of everyday life.

Last month, New Jersey, Ohio, and North Dakota were among the states that made calculated moves to reduce their prison rolls. The move was done not only to prevent prisoners from being infected, but to protect prison staff who are dealing with the same supply shortages hospitals and other medical professionals are experiencing.

It’s well documented that there is simply not enough personal protective equipment, or PPE, to go around. Across the US, citizens are sewing masks out of fabric at home for front line healthcare workers. Arizona’s largest hospital, Banner, told employees to reuse masks and to wear “social comfort masks” in some circumstances, apparently inventing a new term for employees so they’ll feel better about not having appropriate medical gear needed to do their job.

According to the Bismarck Tribune, the North Dakota parole board considered several factors when meeting last month about early release for some inmates. The board took into consideration types of offenses, sentences, victims, institutional behavior, and community support. Each inmate had a parole release date coming within 90 days or less. Advocates for pruning the jail population as part of the efforts to flatten the curve argue that the early releases serve to protect both the vulnerable and society in general, including the families of corrections workers. But some victims’ rights groups are troubled by the move. Marsy’s Law for North Dakota issued a statement urging state officials “to prioritize their constitutional duty to allow victims to be notified and heard” before releasing inmates or those in a pretrial status. (Marsy’s Law is funded by California billionaire Henry Nicholas, who made his fortune founding the Broadcom Corporation.)

The ACLU applauded efforts early on to release prisoners, suggesting the elderly and vulnerable, who would be helpless before a virus outbreak, should be the first released.—Carrie Collins-Fadell