Justice during pandemic: Police seek to protect public and prisoners

Why We Wrote This

Right now, public safety means reducing the number of people in jails. Are measures taken to reduce overcrowding during the pandemic likely to lead to permanent change in how prisoners are cared for?

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Inmates pass the time within their cellblock at the Twin Falls County Jail in Twin Falls, Idaho, July 13, 2018. In March 2020, the coronavirus has police and sheriff's departments around the U.S. releasing certain inmates early to reduce overcrowding.

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In Los Angeles County, home to the country’s largest local jail system, Sheriff Alex Villanueva is working to reduce crowding to protect people from COVID-19. He’s released inmates early, freeing those with fewer than 30 days left to serve. Deputies are arresting fewer people, with offenders who would see their bail set at $50,000 or less given citations.

The number of inmates in the jails has decreased by more than 1,000, and arrests have dropped from an average of 300 a day to 60.

LA County Public Defender Ricardo García is continuing to talk with the sheriff’s office about more ways to safely reduce the inmate population and the risk of contagion.

The novel coronavirus that has so far infected 400,000 people around the world and brought the global economy to a near standstill is reshaping society in dramatic ways, including how Americans think about care for prisoners.

The coronavirus “has raised awareness that what’s going on inside matters, and it affects us,” says Michele Deitch, a professor who specializes in corrections administration. “When we are through this nightmare situation, we may well be willing to make adjustments to our policies that recognize the need to continue some of those new practices.”

For an incarcerated person, visits from family and friends are “like life support,” says Jeremiah Bourgeois.

Those visits, he continues, “help you maintain your humanity” – and he would know, having spent 27 years in prison in Washington state.

But when the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic March 11, those visits were one of the first things to stop. As tough as it is on incarcerated people and their families, it will protect public health, experts say. Mr. Bourgeois admits that, at first, he didn’t see it that way.

“I thought it was more a matter of not wanting the virus to come out of the prisons,” rather than protecting those inside, he says. “I’m so used to people not caring about what happens to prisoners.”

The pandemic that has infected more than 400,000 people around the world and brought the global economy to a near standstill is reshaping society in dramatic ways. How Americans think and care about prisoners is one of them.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

There are 2.3 million people behind bars – many of them older and infirm, many without access to good medical care – and they have lived out of sight and out of mind for most Americans. But with the coronavirus crisis, conditions behind bars are now a public health priority.

Already, states are taking steps to release certain inmates from jails to lower their risk of exposure.

New Jersey is releasing 1,000 prisoners from jails this week, by order of the state Supreme Court chief justice, following similar moves in California. The intake and transfer of inmates and juveniles into California's correctional facilities has also been temporarily halted, with them staying in county custody for the next 30 days instead. New York City is releasing 300 nonviolent inmates from Rikers Island, after 38 prisoners and employees tested positive at the jail. Iowa, meanwhile, is expediting the release of about 700 people who have already been cleared for parole or work release.

On Monday, 14 senators sent a bipartisan letter to the Trump administration, asking it to quickly transfer to home confinement eligible, nonviolent federal inmates who are deemed at high risk for COVID-19.

And as more police and sheriff departments lower arrest rates and explore lowering inmate populations, more fundamental questions are emerging: Is this how things should have been all along? Are measures being implemented for the coronavirus era able to endure beyond the outbreak? And could any of this transformation be permanent?

The coronavirus “has raised awareness that what’s going on inside matters, and it affects us,” says Michele Deitch, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in corrections administration.

“It’s not another world; it’s actually part of our public health system,” she adds. “When we are through this nightmare situation, we may well be willing to make adjustments to our policies that recognize the need to continue some of those new practices.”

The decentralized nature of the United States justice system means responses to COVID-19 have varied, as different jurisdictions seek to protect the health of their incarcerated population and the broader community while still fulfilling constitutional duties like the right to a speedy trial.

Local, state, and federal courts across the country have closed, from Bexar County, Texas, where justices of the peace have suspended eviction hearings, to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has suspended oral arguments.

As of March 20, some 15 states and the U.S. Bureau of Prisons had suspended all visitation, while 37 states were still allowing legal visits, according to a tracker maintained by The Marshall Project. Corrections administrators and law enforcement, meanwhile, have been taking a three-pronged approach: lowering admissions, speeding up releases, and improving overall hygiene and health screening of inmates and staff.

The front door

Local jail systems, which saw 10.6 million admissions in 2017, are a critical front line in the country’s COVID-19 response.

“They’re going to be the first place this starts,” says Professor Deitch. They “need to be turning off the spigot of who’s coming into the system.”

In Los Angeles County, home to the country’s largest local jail system, that’s what they’re trying to do.

LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is working the problem from both ends. He’s released inmates early, freeing those with fewer than 30 days left to serve. Deputies are arresting fewer people – though still arresting violent suspects. Offenders who would see their bail set at $50,000 or less are being given citations, an increase from $25,000.

The number of inmates in the jails has decreased by more than 1,000, and arrests have dropped from an average of 300 a day to 60.

LA County Public Defender Ricardo García is continuing to talk with the sheriff’s office about more ways to safely reduce the inmate population and the risk of contagion. And on March 24 the Superior Court of Los Angeles ordered the release of an undisclosed number pre-trial inmates from the county jail.

A significant number of people are being held pretrial, not yet convicted of a crime – approximately 40% of the inmate population in 2016. His greatest concern is an acute outbreak in the jails.

“We have huge swaths of people in jail who would do fine in the community if steps were taken to help them,” he says.

Sheriff departments in Nashville, Tennessee; and Cleveland are taking similar actions. More than 200 inmates were released from Cuyahoga County jail in Cleveland earlier this month.

In Texas last week, the Fort Worth Police Department stopped making Class C misdemeanor arrests, while in Houston, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office is seeking compassionate release for some inmates in the county jail, where 540 people were 56 or older as of March 23.

In the prisons

The number of people age 55 or older in state and federal prisons increased by 280% between 1999 and 2006. For decades sanitation and health care in prisons have been a low priority, according to Homer Venters, former chief medical officer for New York City Correctional Health Services.

Health care behind bars “is poor and inadequate because it has been designed to be that way,” said Dr. Venters on a March 13 conference call organized by The Justice Collaborative.

“We hear a lot about hand-washing as the most important [outbreak avoidance] tool. Most of the jails and prisons I’ve been to around the country don’t have enough sinks,” he added. “And if there are enough sinks, there isn’t enough soap.”

And many prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers are full, if not overcrowded – an environment that, according to Dr. Venters, makes managing and preventing an outbreak “almost impossible.”

Some departments have been providing inmates with soap free of charge and waiving fees for inmate health care, but they should be doing more, says Professor Deitch. Prisons should be expanding compassionate release, providing free phone and video calls, ramping up medical checks, and instituting de-escalation measures so public health restrictions within prisons don’t boil over into violence.

“Anything we can do to get anyone out of there who doesn’t absolutely need to be there is smart from a humanitarian perspective, but also to reduce the spread of the virus in the community,” she adds. “What happens in jails and prisons doesn’t stay in jails and prisons, and when we’re talking about communicable diseases like this, that’s especially true.”

The back door

Texas announced on March 24 the first positive case of the coronavirus in a state prison inmate. There were about 9,600 people age 60 or older in Texas prisons in fiscal year 2018, with just over half of inmates behind bars for violent offenses.

“There are a lot of people in prison who don’t need to be there,” says Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association. “But you can’t just kick them out the door and say, ‘See you later.’”

Still, for inmates and their families, the thought of a COVID-19 outbreak behind bars is never far from their minds – and restrictions on visitation, logical as they may be, have not helped.

For Jeff Gifford and his wife, visits to their son in the Darrington Unit near Houston have been what they live for. Since they lost visitation on March 13, their reactions have varied.

“My first thought was, ‘[Darn] it, it’s horrible.’ My second thought was, ‘Thank God,’” says Mr. Gifford, a real estate agent in Austin.

“It’s a struggle,” he adds. “We’re just really happy the disease hasn’t spread inside yet.”

“You just don’t know how seriously [prison staff members] are taking the edicts set out by management,” he continues. “But you hope for the best; that’s all you can do. That’s what we’re doing every day.”

Something else Mr. Gifford, and many others, are hoping for is that, once the coronavirus pandemic has passed, people living and working in prisons and jails aren’t shunted back to society’s margins, and that new policies of compassion don’t disappear with the virus.

“We all need to be treating each other with more compassion and kindness right now, [including] in custodial settings,” says Professor Deitch.

“If jurisdictions do what I think they need to do – that’s reducing the number of people held in their custody,” she adds, “I think we’re going to learn it’s possible to do that quickly and safely without putting public safety at risk.”

Editor's note: This article was updated on March 25 to reflect new moves by states.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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