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As coronavirus seeps into U.S. prisons, activists push for the release of vulnerable inmates

The nearly 2.3 million people incarcerated across America are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreak, activists warn, and the virus has already made its way behind bars. The close proximity of inmates, coupled with inadequate treatment, can cause diseases to spread quickly inside prisons, where resources like soap, cleaning supplies and warm water can be hard to come by.

The disease, COVID-19, has sickened tens of thousands of Americans, including 21 inmates and 12 staffers at New York City jails, the largest outbreak behind bars to date. There are more than 40,000 confirmed cases in the U.S., including more than 20,000 in New York state alone. 

After freeing two dozen inmates, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he and city officials were reviewing the cases of 200 others and considering them for early release. Across the Hudson River, the New Jersey Supreme Court approved the release of up to 1,000 inmates serving time for low-level offenses, which is believed the largest release in response to the virus. 

For weeks, activists have been worried about an outbreak that could put inmates' lives at risk and kick off a public health crisis. The ACLU sent letters to federal, state and local officials urging them to release inmates who are at a heightened risk of infection: individuals over 60 years old and those with chronic health problems. 

Louis Reed, an organizer with #Cut50, an initiative to cut the prison population, said it's "pandemonium" when word of a potential outbreak makes its way throughout the prison system. Reed spent nearly 14 years in a federal prison between 2000 and 2013. 

"When I was on that side of life and I found out about an outbreak, I would literally be shaking in my boots," Reed told CBS News. "It feels as if you're in a car driving 100 miles an hour with no seat belt on, not knowing whether that car is going to crash."

So far, every state has suspended visitation inside facilities, according to an analysis by the Marshall Project.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who oversees Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, is tasked with keeping more than 8,700 inmates healthy. So far, he's suspended inmates' co-pays for medical care, introduced screening guidelines, limited in-person visitation and has sought to release low-risk inmates from jail.  

"We can't check our humanity at the door," said Gonzalez, whose officers are only arresting offenders for serious crimes. "It has got to be important for us to remain very strong with public safety, but not lose our compassion along the way."

Harris County would be following the lead of New Jersey and Los Angeles County, where officials say the incarcerated population has already been cut by more than 600 people. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, home to Cleveland, also began releasing inmates through court proceedings. 

Activists say changes need to be focused at all levels of the criminal justice system, from arrest to release to probation. Some don't believe the conversation has gone far enough to protect the estimated 4.5 million under supervision; a population still in the criminal justice system, just not behind bars. 

"Our state and federal lawmakers need to be cognizant of the fact that they don't just represent people outside of bars they represent people behind bars, too," Jessica Jackson, the chief policy officer for REFORM Alliance, told CBS News. "We need to ensure they are also thinking through how to protect one of the most vulnerable populations in the country."

Justin Bey contributed to this report.

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