Jails and prisons spring thousands to prevent coronavirus outbreaks

Terry Smith, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran with PTSD, multiple health issues and a history of homelessness, spent nearly three years in San Francisco County Jail awaiting trial on a burglary charge. The final several weeks were served in the full flush of a burgeoning viral pandemic.

He considers himself lucky.

"I'm out, and I had a place to go," Smith said in a telephone interview with Kaiser Health News from the halfway house where he lives. "If you're in there, you're just in a breeding ground for infection — and this coronavirus is no game."

In fact, the jail where Smith was held has profoundly thinned its population, part of a dramatic release of inmates from California prisons and jails aimed at slowing the spread of the virus, which can race through institutional populations with deadly impact.

Outbreaks have already been reported in lockups across the country, and more are expected.

Governments and jail and prison officials are releasing thousands of inmates, crediting time served in plea deals or granting early release to nonviolent offenders with short terms remaining on their sentences.

In California, attorneys representing prisoners appealed to Gov. Gavin Newsom to approve targeted releases of older inmates and those with chronic medical conditions. The state announced March 31 that it would grant early releases to 3,500 prisoners, 3% of its prison population, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. By that time, COVID-19 cases had been documented at 10 of its 35 prisons. Counties also are releasing some of their 67,000 or so jail inmates.

In Michigan and Colorado, governors signed orders allowing for early releases of vulnerable inmates. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered the state's corrections department to compile a list of those eligible for a commutation of sentence. U.S. Attorney General William Barr, meanwhile, directed the Bureau of Prisons to use home confinement measures to release vulnerable people from federal facilities in Louisiana, Ohio and Connecticut that have been buffeted by the coronavirus.

There is, however, no universal policy or process. Governors in Texas and Arizona have either denied or hampered efforts to enact early releases. Florida and Wisconsin officials announced they would no longer accept new inmates at state prisons but said nothing about releases, thus transferring the problem to city and county jails.

Jails and prisons alike confine people too closely to follow guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"You cannot practice safe distancing in that situation," said Mano Raju, San Francisco's public defender. "The pandemic must be factored in. The conditions most people in the jails are living in is bunk beds. You cannot control your own hygiene in those conditions."

"We pass each other all the time, and you stand in lines, and you go to the TV room where you're sitting right next to a bunch of people," said Smith, the released inmate. "The young guys think they're not gonna get it. The tough guys think they'll muscle through it. They're laughing and joking about it, you know?"

But if the experience in San Francisco is an indication—it hasn't recorded a single inmate infected with COVID-19 — progress is possible. Officials and criminal justice advocates agree that population density behind bars can be reduced.

Raju's office has led a painstaking, case-by-case effort to gain emergency releases for prisoners who fall within the CDC's defined at-risk category: age 60 and older or suffering from an underlying medical condition. Raju also asked San Francisco Sheriff Paul Miyamoto to release all those in the county jail system with six months or less remaining on their sentences; Miyamoto responded, in part, that he was working on releasing those with 60 or fewer days remaining.

Some inmates are being sprung with time served; some go into diversion programs or wear ankle monitors as they finish their terms under home confinement.

"I would like the sheriff to release everyone that it is within his power to release — those who are safe to return to the community on probation," Raju told KHN. "Case by case is a very inefficient way to do it. We need the court time for other things."

San Francisco's district attorney, Chesa Boudin, has instructed his prosecutors to consider giving credit for time served in the plea deals they negotiate. Boudin also told prosecutors not to oppose motions for those in pretrial detention to be released if they present no public risk.

Partly because of that, the county's jail population is dwindling. San Francisco Sheriff's Department spokesperson Nancy Crowley said that as of April 12 the county's jails, which housed more than 1,200 people in January, were down to 749. That reduction allowed for the kind of physical distancing that the CDC recommends, Crowley said. Newsom, meanwhile, signed an executive order freeing up $50 million to lease hotel rooms and buy travel trailers to house the homeless, including those recently released from jails.

Using similar release criteria, Los Angeles County's jail system, the largest of its kind in the U.S., has dramatically reduced its count, going from more than 17,000 inmates at the end of February to 13,586 in early April.

The L.A. sheriff's office said several employees and four inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 8; San Francisco had no positive tests among those incarcerated, although four staffers had been diagnosed.

On Tuesday, Newsom signed an executive order aimed at making it easier and faster to release qualified juveniles from detention.

There has been little organized opposition to the moves. The California State Sheriffs' Association did oppose a zero-bail emergency measure for specific misdemeanors and felonies because it included those accused of child and elder abuse.

Jails where populations have yet to be reduced are grim scenes in the pandemic, Terry Smith said. Although he had his own cell because of his age and poor health, most people in the county jail were housed "four to a box," in close quarters with two bunks, he said.

The food system, Smith said, worried him constantly. He said he counted nine employees who touched his tray of food before he ate. "That's nine guys without a mask," he said.

Crowley said that county staffers are required now to wear gloves and masks. New inmates are screened aggressively for symptoms or potential exposure to the coronavirus, and the county has stopped all visits and taken other measures to maximize safety.

Because Smith had a prior conviction, his public defender, Eric Quandt, had been unable to secure a plea deal despite asserting that Smith had already served the likely maximum sentence for his first-degree burglary charge while awaiting trial.

Smith, though, is in recovery for heroin addiction and also has seizures and severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, or COPD. Using those details, Quandt was able to obtain an emergency release and get Smith placed at the Metropolitan Fresh Start House, a program designed to give homeless veterans new direction and, often, track them into jobs through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"I don't want to be sent to the street, and I'm not going back to jail for nobody," Smith said. "The virus is already in the jails. You don't want to be there."

This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Kaiser Health NewsThis article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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