As this disease swept around the globe, the focus was on identifying and protecting “vulnerable populations,” including those in jails and prisons. COVID put the national spotlight on these populations and the need to prevent needless deaths in facilities where adequate health care is lacking in the best of times.
These preventative measures are urgently needed in America. No other single nation locks up more of its citizens. America has more than 3,000 jails housing over 745,200 prisoners; 480,000 are still presumed legally innocent. COVID has forced local and state governments to at least partly unwind the practice of mass incarceration. The release of thousands of people was an attempt to mitigate COVID’s devastating impact.
The release were necessary as public health officials see jails as especially vulnerable, as was rigorously documented in an investigation published by Reuters on October 28, 2020.
Thousands of people may be confined in close quarters with limited medical care, and often times people in jail can be moved around making it more likely they spread disease, noted Brendan Saloner, a John Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health professor. Saloner described jails as “reservoirs of disease,” and inmates as “sitting duck[s] waiting for the disease.”
A class-action lawsuit was brought by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union after inmates at the Clayton County Detention Center in Georgia complained of mask shortages and cramped, unsanitary conditions. The facility was alleged to have been housing three prisoners in living quarters designed to hold two.
The conditions were described as “grim” and inmates exchanged food items for masks made from torn T-shirts and even underwear. The lawsuit also alleges that Sheriff Victor Hill failed to protect the inmates after more than 60 were infected in the 1,900-bed facility. It was the largest outbreak in one of Georgia’s 10 biggest jails. Randolph Mitchell was 72 and serving time for misdemeanor battery. Mitchell provided sworn testimony that he was neither seen by a doctor nor tested for COVID. While Mitchell survived, another unnamed 70-year-old man did not. The Sheriff’s Office claimed that the man had contracted the disease before being booked into the jail and his death was not due to conditions in the jail or lack of adequate medical care by private medical contractor Correct Health.
In Colorado, Jose Montoya was arrested for failure to appear on charges of violation of a protective order and assault. Montoya was placed in the Jefferson County Jail near Denver, began showing symptoms, and tested positive at the hospital. The 65-year-old Montoya died seven days later after being released on his own recognizance. It was only after Montoya’s arrival at the jail and eventual death that inmates began being tested at the Jefferson County Jail.
That jail said its private medical contractor, Wellpath Holdings, Inc., provides “adequate” inmate care. Reuters documented nearly 300 deaths of inmates in jails since 2008, prior to the pandemic, and that was limited to those who had been “languishing in local jails for at least a year without ever getting their day in court to seek their freedom.” Inadequate treatment of medical conditions or illnesses caused the death of 173 of those inmates. Up to 85 of those prisoners that died since 2008 had been in jail awaiting a case resolution for at least two years.
One example is Chinedu Efoagui. Efoagui was a 38-year-old man from Nigeria was able to come to America when he won a visa lottery in 2012 after earning a master’s degree in computer science. In 2016, Efoagui suffered a mental breakdown and was arrested for a variety of misdemeanor traffic offenses and felonies only arising from the subsequent interaction with law enforcement.
Efoagui had no prior interactions with law enforcement. After 512 days in jail, Efoagui died of a pulmonary embolism from a blood clot that he had complained about for months. Wellstar Health, another private medical contractor in Georgia, declined to comment specifically but did note that requests for medical care by inmates is the responsibility of the Cobb County Adult Detention Center staff where Efoagui was housed.
These types of issues had to be addressed and COVID was seen as an opportunity to change long-standing, outdated policies that result in so many people being needlessly locked-up and made America the incarceration capital of the world.
The Reuters survey found that the number of persons confined in the nation’s largest 471 jails fell by over 100,000 between February and May 2020. The populations of state prisons fell by over 68,000 during the same period. Those reductions in the populations at these institutions were down to a 1.4 million per day average and were the lowest in a decade. As early as February, authorities in the state of Washington at Seattle’s King County Correctional Facility and Kent’s Maleng Regional Justice Center had begun assessing the risk of COVID-19 to its 1,945 inmates.
March 2020 saw most non-violent misdemeanor offenders in those jurisdictions no longer being jailed by the sheriff’s department. The sheriff also suspended the work-release program. Allowing the release of all inmates who were only housed overnight and would normally leave daily to work anyway. Public defenders requested their clients be released while forgoing posting of bail.
By May, King County Executive Dow Constantine noted that the populations of the two facilities was down to about 1,300—and Constantine wants to keep it that way. A plan was announced in July by Constantine to shut down the 12-story King County Correctional Facility. A cut in population of 600 inmates could save the county over $4 million per year. “Each month that goes by where we’re able to maintain the population at 1,300 instead of 1,900 shows that this is sustainable, this is possible,” Constantine told Reuters.
King County is seriously considering making the COVID-inspired changes permanent. Dane County in Wisconsin reduced its jail population for 710 to 452. County Sheriff Dave Mahoney believes the trend will be evaluated post-pandemic and said, “The public is saying look, your population is down, let’s learn from the forced lessons.”
Jefferson County Jail near Denver, reduced its jail population by half. Los Angeles seeks to fund programs supporting “alternatives to incarceration,” including mental health services. Orange County reduced its jail population by 45% and embraced the state’s new zero-bail policy. COVID also swiftly turned long-sought bail reform in to a reality. The creation and implementation of a new system that does not disproportionately affect poor people.
The American Bar Association has condemned the current bail system as being discriminatory. Critics have said it places a penalty on poverty. “People need to have money to get out,” said Nancy Fishman, formerly a project director at the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice in New York. She added, “And that means we have jails full of poor people.
Most government officials are committed to maintaining these changes. Denver prosecutor Beth McCann said, “The virus has really assisted us who are of the mind that we have too many people in jail, particularly awaiting trial.”
Others, such as Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, contend the pandemic is being manipulated to allow the release of dangerous criminals. He joins other critics who worry the releases will put communities at risk and increase violent crime. Drew McWilliams, 32, was one of the inmates released from New York’s Rikers Island.
He says, “I watched certain channels where they essentially said that they should have just left us in there to die from COVID. I want people to see that everybody that has gotten released has not been doing badly. A lot of us have been doing the right thing.” McWilliams is currently taking courses to become a guidance counselor.
The nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice think tank surveyed 375 jails and found that, “Rebooking rates for people released after March 16 remained below pre-pandemic rebooking rates.” The current facts appear to put people like Spitzer on the wrong side of these issues. It would be healthier for everyone if a “new normal” was adopted in America’s jails and prisons.
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