Deciding which prisoners to release during this pandemic

Maramis Choufani is the Managing Editor of the Las Vegas Tribune.
Maramis Choufani is the Managing Editor of the Las Vegas Tribune.

Well, if nothing else (and there’s plenty else), this pandemic has given certain members of the incarcerated community food for thought…about how to turn it to their own benefit.
For starters, prisoners have been being released from prison left and right in order to protect them from the possibility of getting infected with the coronavirus. Of course there are many inmates who are in the category of those most at risk during this pandemic. That category includes those who;
—Are over age 65.
—Have cancer.
—Have hypertension.
—Have lung disease.
—Have diabetes.
—Have heart disease.
—Have another condition that compromises the immune system.
—Are taking medications that suppress the immune system.
Consider, for a moment, the non-incarcerated population. Of them, approximately:
—16 percent are over 65
—38 percent have cancer.
—33 percent have hypertension.
—15 percent have lung disease.
—10.5 percent hart  diabetes.

—48 percent have heart disease
—3 percent have another condition that compromises the immune system.
—We can also assume that many are taking medications that suppress the
immune system.
These are only approximations, but usually the non-incarcerated population would have more and better access to their doctors to get diagnosed and treated sooner rather than later. Yet while there may be no way to correlate the percentages with the incarcerated population, we can assume that it would be similar in many ways.
But this is not really about percentages. We can well imagine that in any prison there are those who would fit into any one of those above categories. And how handy for them that they are in that category, they would think, since being kept in prison would put them at a higher or even high risk for becoming infected with the coronavirus and they would have a chance of being released.
But shouldn’t there be some other concerns involved here? For example, what were these people put in prison for in the first place? Aside from any more particular reasons, wasn’t it to separate them from society so that society might feel safe by not being subjected to whatever it was the incarcerated had been perpetrating upon the unsuspecting or even the knowing public? Shouldn’t those in charge of making those pandemic-related release decisions take everything into consideration?
If a prisoner falls into several of those categories and is near release time anyway, an early release after serving all those years would probably not be such a bad thing — providing, of course, that the inmate is not harboring hate and anger and showing signs that he (or even she) might get released and start to take out his incarceration on the unsuspecting public. In which case, those in charge of such early releases would have to evaluate certain possibilities. For one, if the coronavirus did hit a certain prison, wouldn’t they have to be concerned about the safety of all the prisoners? They certainly couldn’t let them all out, so they would be employing the best safety measures they could for the good of the entire prison. Those who have been infected would obviously have to be isolated from the mainstream population. Some might even have to be removed to hospitals, and the usual routine might have to be changed for the safety and well-being of all. Social distancing would seem an impossibility, and even the regulations regarding having anything with alcohol (hand-sanitizer) would have to be loosened up.
But getting so infected, or coming down with the coronavirus, is not something that will happen; it is something that might happen. Not only in prisons, but in the outside population as well, as we have already discovered. We all take our chances. But we do have to also consider other things that might have a higher possibility of happening when we let certain prisoners back into a free society.
Those who were incarcerated for rape and never came to grips with what they did, and why, may not be ready to once again mingle with so-called polite society, it being too much of an opportunity for the released inmate to commit the same crime again. So in weighing the matter carefully, is the possibility greater that the inmate will become infected with the coronavirus, or that, once released, he might commit the same kind of crime for which he was incarcerated? We have heard of such criminals being released.
Or, what if someone who may still have murder in his heart is released? Doesn’t the panel of “judges” who decide on the early release or parole of a prisoner sometimes make a mistake in granting it, maybe because the inmate is a good liar or the inmate didn’t realize he still had a criminal heart? (Giving him the benefit of the doubt.) And that evaluation goes through much scrutiny. So now new possibilities open up for the incarcerated; it seems to be much easier to get released on the humane health considerations. I do believe in releasing those who are non-violent and never were, those who are very old and/or sick, but mostly those who have a home to go to, someone to care for and about them. Everyone needs a home so that must be the first consideration. Even halfway houses aren’t taking in any of the recently released.
Those who are in for relatively small drug charges can also be released. And those who are in for stealing food to feed their family.
They shouldn’t be in there in the first place. We need to either better evaluate who gets brought into court for sentencing, or change the laws allowing a judge to have more leeway in passing on the sentence so said judge will not feel that his or her hands are tied when it comes to minimum and maximum sentences.
This is not an easy situation to deal with. We must be humane toward the incarcerated, especially when we consider many have been placed there even though they are not guilty. And many have been placed there for the same crimes that so many others commit every day but had the good fortune not to get caught. Not that that makes the crime okay, but maybe even the judge who sentenced him might be guilty of the same things. Perhaps more Anger Management therapy and Relationship therapy could cut down on family/domestic violence and free up many spaces in any prison.
Let’s just not be too hasty in giving in to all those cries for early release when we may be unleashing a monster in disguise upon the unsuspecting public. While no one really likes prison, they do have a roof over their heads, food to eat, and medical care to some degree, be any of that ever so humble. Those who have no home to go to will be far worse off when set free, with no jobs available, and social distancing still in effect, and masks still required for the time being. The circumstances in which we find ourselves are the very things that contribute to whether or not we might commit a crime.
Let’s think first before unleashing too big a monster.
But the bottom line — no matter what the reason for the person to have been incarcerated — is always the same: the inmates, the prisoners, the incarcerated, are human beings, and if we can help them in this time to return to society, to their homes and to loved ones, without consciously or knowingly inflicting danger upon their communities, let’s do it. But for those who must stay behind bars, let’s remember they are also human beings and we do not want to stoop to the lowest level and inflict more misery on them just because we can.
Imagine yourself behind bars. Maybe for life. It can’t be easy. Do we then really have to treat the incarcerated like dirt to have them feel the pain of their punishment?
Maramis Choufani is the Managing Editor of the Las Vegas Tribune. She writes a weekly column in this newspaper. To contact Maramis, email her at

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