Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Inmates sue to be released from jail amid pandemic

As prisons and jails become covid-19 hotbeds, incarcerated people "with medical vulnerabilities and short times left on their sentence are suing for release—and if that fails, they want masks, gloves, and the space to socially distance," Emma Coleman reports for Route Fifty. "In courtrooms across the country, lawyers are pushing to release more people from jail in order to allow them to quarantine at home and free up space for those inside to socially distance. The issue is particularly urgent for people with chronic medical conditions—about 40 percent of those held in state prisons and local jails."

Thousands of people were released from jails in the early days of the pandemic, especially those awaiting trial for minor offenses or serving time for non-violent crimes. "But so far, judges have been largely resistant to allowing categorical releases of those not eligible for those earlier reprieves who are medically vulnerable, have short times left on their sentences, or are in jail awaiting trial," Coleman reports. "Instead, some judges are ordering that jails follow CDC recommendations, such as providing soap and sanitizer and making space for people to socially distance.

Most jails have said they're doing they best they can, but family members of the incarcerated, jail reform advocates, and some jail employees say it's not enough to prevent the spread of covid-19. "People in jail say there is little air ventilation and cramped sleeping quarters. They’ve repurposed garbage bags as gloves and socks as masks. In written testimony filed with lawsuits, several described watching people die in the bunks next to them," Coleman reports.

But some communities and victims rights organizations have argued that offenders shouldn't receive clemency because of the pandemic, and some governors, like Greg Abbott in Texas, have barred the release of some detainees, saying it would threaten public safety, Coleman reports.

"Health experts counter that not releasing people is the bigger risk to public safety. Jails and prisons with high infection rates become vectors for the surrounding communities—in one prison 80% of the population inside tested positive," Coleman reports.

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