Like many folks, I now wake up every day to learn the latest update on the Coronavirus. I usually listen to Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, as I reside in Maryland. Governor Hogan is one of the more aggressive governors in terms of earlier mandating social distance. He ordered the closure of state courts, schools, colleges and universities, bars, restaurants for sit-in dining, gyms, movies, entertainment centers, libraries and any public gathering of more than 10 persons. Governor Hogan stated inmates are safer where they reside. I thought perhaps Governor Hogan has never stepped foot inside a jail or prison.
As a trial attorney, I’ve visited jails to interview clients on many occasions over the years. There is no way that an inmate can engage in social distancing of three to six feet. A one-person cell may often hold three persons.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) recommends regularly washing hands or using hand sanitizer. Alcohol, an ingredient in hand sanitizer, is prohibited in most penal institutions. Those housed or working inside jails and prisons will become infected with the Coronavirus from unavoidable close contact and lack of proper hygiene. That includes inmates, physicians, correctional officers, detention facility administrators, drug treatment specialists, teachers, safety compliance officers, psychologists or behavioral clinicians, just to name a few. Unlike inmates, those working in jails or prisons go home after work.
Penal institutions are a “breeding ground” for the Coronavirus much like cruise ships, nursing homes, college dormitories and schools. It is naïve for officials to avoid a discussion or plan to reduce Covid-19 in penal institutions. Chicago’s Jail, one of the largest in the country, reported 251 prisoner infections and one death—with infections continuously rising. In just two weeks, the federal Bureau of Prisons had 284 infected inmates and eight deaths as April 9.
Slowing the spread of Coronavirus in prisons and jails will involve humanitarian efforts, criminal justice reform measures and public health safety measures. And swift action must occur, or the spread will affect persons and communities outside the prison population.
We must identify best practices to keep staff and inmates safe. For example, cases of older and sick inmates who are serving time for nonviolent crimes must be reviewed for compassionate release. These individuals are most at risk according to the CDC guidelines on contracting Coronavirus.
As a former prosecutor, I’ve seen persons in jail awaiting trial who are unable to make a $1,000 bail for a theft misdemeanor. This amounts to paying approximately $100 to a bail bond company to secure bail. Others charged with nonviolent crimes may remain in jail because they failed to appear for court and a judge issued a bench warrant without setting bail. Others detained on technical grounds such as alleged violations of probation for failure to pay or timely pay a fine, testing positive for an illegal substance or missing appointments with a probation officer should be released. Those inmates who have 6 months or less remaining on their sentence should also be released.
Los Angeles the nation’s largest jail system, already trimmed its population by releasing individuals with less than 30 days on their sentence. Racine County, Wisconsin Sheriff suspended all nonviolent arrests due to Covid-19. It also ceased all non-essential inmate transfers. Ohio Courts Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor recommended that jails release all inmates at high risk for contracting Covid-19. And Jefferson County, Kentucky prosecutors and public defenders agreed to release about 100 non-violent pre-trial detainees. They cited the impossibility of social distancing and prohibition against hand sanitizer in jails due to its alcohol content.
In April, Maryland prison officials confirmed at least three cases of Covid-19 with one inmate and two staff personnel. In March, New York City confirmed 39 inmates and 21 Department of Corrections staff tested positive for Coronavirus. In April, New York’s Rikers Island jail reported 200 cases of Covid-19.
There are only two options available on Coronavirus spreading inside prisons and jails. We can act now or do nothing. Doing nothing will cost lives both inside and outside of the prison population. We must act swiftly like everyone’s lives depend on it.
Also: We Can’t Wait Any Longer to Act on Covid-19 in Jails and Prisons by Debbie Hines
Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, former Baltimore prosecutor and Assistant Attorney General for Maryland.