WASHINGTON — Attorney General William P. Barr ordered the Bureau of Prisons on Friday to expand the group of federal inmates eligible for early release and to prioritize those at three facilities where known coronavirus cases have grown precipitously, as the virus threatens to overwhelm prison medical facilities and nearby hospitals.
Mr. Barr wrote in a memo to Michael Carvajal, the director of the Bureau of Prisons, that he was intensifying the push to release prisoners to home confinement because “emergency conditions” created by the coronavirus have affected the ability of the bureau to function.
He directed the bureau to prioritize the release of prisoners from federal correctional institutions in Louisiana, Connecticut and Ohio, which comprise the bulk of the system’s 91 inmates and 50 staff members who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
At least five inmates have died at the federal prison in Oakdale, La., and two have died at the federal prison near Elkton, Ohio. Officials with unions that represent prison workers have said that the reported numbers are likely undercounting the number of infected staff, given the paucity of testing.
“We are experiencing significant levels of infection at several of our facilities,” Mr. Barr said in the memo. He said that where appropriate the bureau must quickly “move vulnerable inmates out of these institutions.”
The memo was first reported by Politico.
Last week, Mr. Barr asked the bureau to identify and release all inmates who were eligible for home confinement, no longer posed a threat to the public and were particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.
After that directive, 522 of the system’s 146,000 total inmates were moved to home confinement, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
On Friday, Mr. Barr expanded that cohort of people eligible for release to home confinement, exercising an authority granted to him by the $2 trillion economic stabilization package that President Trump signed into law last week.
That expanded group includes “all at-risk inmates — not only those who were previously eligible for transfer,” Mr. Barr wrote in his memo.
Citing a lack of resources, he also authorized the bureau to release inmates to home confinement without electronic monitors, where appropriate.
The coronavirus has ripped through jails and prisons, where it is impossible for guards and inmates to maintain social distancing.
In an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, authorities nationwide have released thousands of inmates, primarily from state and local facilities, where the vast majority of all incarcerated people reside.
This week, the bureau said that all 122 facilities in the federal prison system would be on lockdown for two weeks to slow the spread.
On Monday, Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, urged Mr. Barr to “institute aggressive measures to release medically compromised, elderly and pregnant prisoners” in order to stem the health crisis in the federal prison system.
Mr. Nadler also asked that the Justice Department begin universal coronavirus testing in all federal prison facilities.
But law enforcement agents have pushed back on early release more broadly, arguing that doing so could overwhelm law enforcement, particularly probation and pretrial services officers.
Once an inmate leaves prison, probation and pretrial services officers “supervise those formerly incarcerated individuals and ensure they no longer pose a threat to the American people,” Larry Cosme, the national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said in a statement on Monday.
“It is imperative that law enforcement has the personnel, protective equipment, and appropriate compensation needed to carry out their important duties,” Mr. Cosme said.
In his memo, Mr. Barr said that prisoners who had committed serious criminal acts like violent crimes or sex offenses would not be released in order to protect public safety. And he noted that the release of prisoners comes at a time when police forces across the country are shrinking as officers are exposed to the coronavirus.
“The last thing our massively overburdened police forces need right now is the indiscriminate release of thousands of prisoners onto the streets without any verification that those prisoners will follow the laws when they are released,” Mr. Barr wrote in his memo.