California to release up to 3,500 non-violent inmates over coronavirus fears

California plans to reduce its state jail population by up to 3,500 inmates to reduce crowding during the coronavirus pandemic.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Tuesday outlined two main steps for the reduction: suspending the intake of prisoners from county jails and expediting the transition to parole for inmates charged with non-violent crimes with 60 days or less left on their sentence.

“We do not take these new measures lightly. Our first commitment at CDCR is ensuring safety – of our staff, of the incarcerated population, of others inside our institutions, and of the community at large,” said CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz in a statement.

“However, in the face of a global pandemic, we must consider the risk of COVID-19 infection as a grave threat to safety, too,” Diaz added.

California is currently among the hardest hit states by the coronavirus outbreak, reporting more than 8,000 confirmed cases and more than 180 virus-related deaths.

As the pandemic has intensified in the United States, doctors and social justice advocates have highlighted the vulnerability of prison populations living in cramped, unsanitary conditions.

Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York has released hundreds of high-risk inmates from Rikers Island and other city jail facilities shortly after the top doctor at Rikers warned that a “storm is coming.”

As of Monday, 22 California state prison employees and four inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, according to state officials.

California’s corrections department estimates that up to 3,500 inmates would be eligible to ship out for parole early. The halt on accepting new inmates from county jails will naturally reduce the state prison population by about 3,000 within 30 days, according to the department.

It was not immediately clear when the inmates would start to be released.

Roughly 115,000 prisoners are locked behind bars in California’s prisons, according to a California policy institute.

For prison staffs and those remaining locked up, the department said in a news release it has developed “comprehensive healthcare guidelines” following policy from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The plan includes mandatory verbal and temperature screenings for staff and a temporarily ban inmate visitation.

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