The Cuyahoga County Court in Ohio released more than 200 low-risk, non-violent incarcerated people from the county jail on Saturday morning amid growing concerns over the US coronavirus outbreak and how it may rapidly spread through jails. Following the release, many were placed on probation or had their bond reduced to a manageable level while others were moved to the Ohio Department of Corrections prison to create space should there need to be a separate quarantine area.
Currently, no one in the prison — working or imprisoned — has tested positive for COVID-19, but reducing the size of the population inside the prison is one way to create space to treat any possible future cases. "We are trying to make as much room as possible, so when this virus hits our jail, the jail can deal with these people, quarantine them and deal with it instead of letting them sit there and infect the whole entire jail," Brendan Sheehan, administrative judge of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, told CNN. Last week, there were 1,970 people in Cuyahoga County Jail. That number has dropped to 1,740 and may soon drop even further.
In addition to letting out low-level offenders, the prison is also taking steps toward expedited hearings to lower the number of people awaiting sentencing at the county jail. Last week, county officials and judges agreed to postpone all new jury trials for the next month at least, unless a defendant chooses not to waive their right to a speedy trial. To reduce in-person contact further, all pre-trial hearings will be held over the phone.
These measures taken speak to the gravity COVID-19 presents to the overcrowded American prison system, and will likely be mirrored in other cities and states across the country. Los Angeles County is pursuing similar means to reduce outbreak risks in its prisons. As of March 16, LA County is releasing low-risk and non-violent inmates early as well as reducing the number of arrests they are making from an average of 300 each day to 60. Over the past two weeks, the county’s total number of people in custody dropped from 17,076 to 16,459, reports the Los Angeles Times.
To be clear, the incarcerated people being released from jails are non-violent, low-level offenders who often face hefty wait times before trial and cause overcrowding within the prison system. Nationally, about 13% of people incarcerated are in prison for a non-violent, drug-related crime, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice in 2016 estimated that approximately 39% of the nationwide prison population did not pose a threat to public safety.
But, those being released on probation or on bond will still face certain restrictions. In the case of Cuyahoga County, some people are being released for time served, others are on probation, while others are placed on home monitoring or transferred to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. House arrests are another method that may be used as jails increasingly try to reduce the number of people in their facilities.
As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases grows, other prisons around the country may have to consider similar measures in order to quell the spread of the virus in their own state prison systems. Currently, 2.3 million people are in prisons, jails, and detention centres in the United States. While they are separate from the general population, they are by no means under quarantine. Jails and prisons experience a daily ingress of staff, health care workers, and visitors, and the spread has already begun. At least 35 people held across three detention centres in Los Angeles have been placed in quarantine after displaying symptoms, reports Buzzfeed News.
An employee at a correctional facility in Pennsylvania tested positive for COVID-19, and as a result, 34 people – both incarcerated and staff – are now in quarantine. On Friday, the Federal Department of Correction announced that all 122 federal correctional facilities across the country will not be permitting visits from family, friends, or attorneys for 30 days. Changes required to limit the spread of the virus raise questions of what constitutes ethical treatment of incarcerated people in an effort to prioritize health and safety.
Many of the general public have been advised to self-quarantine and socially distance, but these measures are simply not possible inside jails and prisons. Those who remain in jail still face a risk of catching the coronavirus, remaining untreated, and spreading it throughout jail facilities. Jails and prisons present a unique and challenging environment in which to implement effective strategies.
The probability of spreading the virus is high in prison given the already high illness rate, crowding, delays in medical evaluation and treatment, as well as rationed access to soap, water, and clean laundry in prisons. One such example is hand sanitizer. While not as effective as soap, hand sanitizer provides quick and easy cleaning should soap and water not be readily available. However, due to its high alcohol content, it is considered contraband in prisons.
Ohio administrative judge Brendan Sheehan told local Fox affiliate, WJW, that many of Cuyahoga County’s inmates were already in poor health, citing a higher risk to those with underlying health conditions. He added that it wouldn’t take much for the coronavirus to spread in prison. For now, the extra space remains a preventative measure. Should current quarantine measures in other prisons not prove sufficient, it is possible that more low-risk people could be released from jails and prisons in an effort to implement a system of safe treatment.
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