Inmates will be considered for medical release due to pandemic

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The Kate Barnard Correctional Center is a female minimum-security facility in Oklahoma City. BEN FELDER/the Frontier

Fourteen Oklahoma inmates will be considered for release next week because they are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, which has caused outbreaks in prisons and jails across the country. 

Pardon and Parole Executive Director Steven Bickley said the 14 names will be considered at a May 13 meeting and were offered at the request of Department of Corrections Director Scott Crow. 

“Prisons are a high risk environment (for COVID-19) and these 14 individuals have increased mortality risk should they get it,” Bickley said. 

More than 125 inmates were considered by the Department of Corrections, Bickley said, but names were removed from the list because they were charged with a violent crime, had mandatory minimum sentences not yet met, domestic abuse charges or were registered sex offenders. 

If approved by the board next week, the 14 individuals would not require approval by the governor because they are nonviolent offenders. 

The Pardon and Parole board is holding virtual meetings this week but approved a special meeting next week to consider the 14 names. 

“Given the urgency and the issues of COVID as an ongoing risk in prisons I prefer us not to wait until the next board meeting (next month) to hear this docket,” Bickley recommended to the board. 

Some prisons across the country have become coronavirus hotspots, although the Department of Corrections have reported just two inmates and five employees have tested positive. 

Criminal justice advocates have urged states to release inmates with health issues that put them at higher risk for death or illness if they were to contract the coronavirus. 

Some believe the risk of spread is especially high in a state like Oklahoma where prisons are over capacity. 

“They are so close together in there and I guess they are doing the best they can to keep them separated, but how much can they control?” asked Jefferey Flores, whose mother is incarcerated at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center. 

Flores’s mother, who has asthma and difficulty breathing, has been approved for parole but is awaiting the final administrative steps for release. 

“It’s scary because you worry that she might catch it and not make it out of there,” Flores said. 

The Department of Corrections is testing all persons for COVID-19 as they are released. Last month, a recently released inmate from the William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply tested positive and the prison issued quarantine procedures for 52 other inmates who may have been exposed. 

Inmates are now being tested at least a week before release. 

Asthma, diabetes and other health issues that can cause complications are often more common among prison inmates than the general public. In Oklahoma, 12 percent of inmates have tested positive for the liver disease hepatitis C. 

“People in prisons and jails tend to have many more of the comorbidities or preexisting conditions that make individuals more likely to need hospitalization, more likely to need ventilators or ICU beds if they get COVID-19,” said Damion Shade, a criminal justice policy analysis with the Oklahoma Policy Institute. 

Shade said the 14 names offered by the Department of Corrections is a good first step, but he believes a more significant push will be needed as the virus remains a threat for months, if not years. 

Because most Oklahoma prisons are in rural areas, Shade said an outbreak could be especially challenging given the limited medical resources in those communities. 

“In light of COVID-19, how long is it going to be sustainable to keep immune compromised people in cramped conditions like this?” Shade asked. 

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Ben Felder

Based in Oklahoma City, Ben Felder joined The Frontier in 2019 and covers education and politics. He previously covered education and government as an investigative reporter at The Oklahoman before becoming the newspaper’s news director. Felder can be reached at ben@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @benfelder_okc
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