Old and frail, prisoners seek compassionate jail release
Now 81 years old, Krisha Maharaj has been behind bars for 34 years, after he was found guilty in a gruesome double murder in a downtown Miami hotel.
Last month he was placed in quarantine after the prison where he is being held in South Florida reported its first cases of covid-19. His dorm was locked down on quarantine for several weeks, according to his lawyers.
His Miami lawyer, Ben Kuehne, wrote last month to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to request an urgent compassionate release to allow him to be cared for at home by his elderly wife, Marita Maharaj, who lives near Fort Lauderdale.
“In addition to the possibility of serious consequences because of his age, Mr. Maharaj is also in a highly vulnerable population cohort because of his serious and documented health issues,” Kuehne wrote in the March 30 letter. “He will almost certainly die if he gets the virus in prison,” he added.
Maharaj, who suffers from diabetes, a heart and kidney condition, and is mostly wheelchair-bound, is one of the thousands of elderly prisoners around the country who inmate advocates say should be released to age and frail health.
"Ripe for the virus"
“The prisoners are ripe for the virus,” said Nicole Porter with The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy center working to reduce incarceration and racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system. “It’s very difficult to practice social distancing in prison, which puts the inmates at incredible risk,” she added.
Out of the total 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States, there are 27,000 reported coronavirus cases, according to Sharon Dolovich, the director of UCLA's Behind Bars Data Project. But that is a dramatic undercount, due to lack of testing in many facilities. " There really isn't the political will to do what is necesary to release the people we need to release to keep everyone safe," Dolovich told Univision.
State prison inmates appear to be becoming infected and dying at higher rates than the general population, in some states, placing some prisons in Ohio among the nation’s top hot spot for coronavirus cases.
Nine inmates in Florida’s state prison system have died of covid-19 in the last eight weeks, all men over 60, according to the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC). Another 5,665 have been placed in medical quarantine after 724 confirmed covid-19 cases.
As of May 8, 2020, there were 8,742 inmates 60 and older housed in Florida’s correctional institutions, according to FDC.
In Indiana, the coronavirus death toll tied to state prisons has climbed to 15, including 13 inmates and two corrections officers. About 11% of the state's roughly 27,000 prisoners were in quarantine or isolation because of positive tests and possible exposure to covid-19.
In one Michigan prison, Lakeland Correctional Facility, 642 prisoners, or 44% of the population, and 31, or 11%, of staff have tested positive for the virus.
DeSantis has yet to reply to Kuehne’s letter. But the FDC responded saying inmates who are “permanently incapacitated” can receive medical relief, though only the governor has the power to grant commutation of sentences, and even then only with the agreement of two cabinet members who are also statewide elected officials.
“In the face of this challenge, FDC has directed tremendous resources towards its pandemic response,” it stated. “Our team is experienced and well prepared to manage infectious diseases within our facilities,” it added.
The British government has made numerous representations over a number of years on behalf of Maharaj.
“We are in touch with the U.S. authorities and have requested they do all they can to safeguard his health and welfare, particularly in light of the global coronavirus outbreak,” a spokesperson for the Foriegn Office in London told Univision.
10,000 elderly in federal prisons
In federal prisons, 49 inmates have died from covid-19, with another 3,379 confirmed positive test results for covid-19 nationwide.
Of the roughly 150,000 inmates in U.S. federal prisons, about 10,000 are over 60, an age group deemed high-risk for severe and potentially fatal cases, according to federal health officials at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
When hundreds of federal prisoners have been released to home confinement, under a March 26 order by the Attorney General William Barr, federal and state officials have been slow to act, activists say. About 1,000 prisoners have been released early due to covid-19, but advocates say tens of thousands more are eligible.
“There has been a lot of resistance by governors even though they have been made fully aware by public health experts and no new laws are required,” said Porter.
A 2016 study from the Brennan Center for Justice found that there was no strong public safety reason to incarcerate 39 percent of the inmates in state and federal prisons, about 576,000 people. Elderly Americans are especially unlikely to commit further crimes once released, it pointed out.
Many elderly inmates have been in prison for decades after receiving long sentences under strict guidelines in the 1990s, The New York Times editorial board commented in a recent opinion.
“Case management staff are urgently reviewing all inmates to determine which ones meet the criteria established by the Attorney General,” a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) told Univision.
There have been 2,431 COVID-19 home confinement transfers since the Attorney General’s March 26 memo, the BOP said.
Another 354 federal inmates received reductions in sentence, rather than home confinement.
No family visits
The South Florida Reception Center, where Maharaj is being held, sits in the Everglades surrounded by trees on the western outskirts of Miami. Closed to family visits due to the virus, Maharaj’s wife of more than 50 years, Marita, was last able to see him in mid-February, the longest they have been without face-to-face contact since he was first jailed in 1986.
To compensate, prison authorities allow five-minute calls most days, with some interruptions due to quarantine.
“ Life here has always been hell,” Maharaj told his wife in a recent call. “But now we have descended into the lowest regions of hell. I am unable to go anywhere, they deliver food to us that I cannot eat. I have to simply wait here until I catch coronavirus,” he told her.
"Crammed together to die"
Maharaj is housed in a building with two dormitories side-by-side, each one with 46 people in it, according to his lawyers. The narrow single beds are 3 feet apart from each other, with limited time outside. The prison is taking the temperature of each prisoner in the morning and the evening, and then removes anyone who tests high.
“ They are just crammed together to die,” said his wife.
The ban on family visits is due to expire May 17, but may be extended.
His lawyers say Maharaj has suffered from precarious health for a number of years, adding to the burden of a decades-long battle to prove his innocence.
A judge in Miami last year recognized that aspects of his prosecution and conviction were questionable, opening the door to a new hearing in his case, which was scheduled for April 30, and later postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Maharaj, who is a former self-made British millionaire food importer from Trinidad, is serving two life sentences for the murders of Derrick and Duane Moo Young, a Jamaican-American father and son who were shot dead, one of them execution-style, in October 1986.
His legal team claims he was wrongly convicted and that Colombian drug dealers were behind the crime.
His long time pro bono lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, heads a London-based human rights group, Reprieve, that fights for prisoner rights. He wrote a book about the case with an endorsement by best-selling crime writer John Grisham who called Maharaj’s imprisonment a “spectacular example of a bogus conviction.”
The Maharaj case was also featured in a CNN series, 'Death Row Stories.'
Miami police and the stateprosecutor’s office have vehemently defended their actions in the case for years.
Sentence commuted in 1997
Maharaj spent a decade on death row before his sentence was commuted to life in 1997.
His lawyers said Maharaj would happily wear an electronic tag and not being allowed outside except to go to hospital should there be a medical emergency.
“It’s distressing for these octogenarians in Florida there’s been no response to his case,” said Porter, noting a sorry irony of Maharaj’s case. “ He was commuted from death row, so the state decided he did not deserve to die for his crime. Now he is locked up where he is at a high risk of dying because of covid-19,” she said.