As our country struggles to contain the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, conversations have centered around the vulnerable populations in our communities. The elderly, those with weakened immune systems, and those with preexisting health conditions all are at higher risk of contracting this deadly disease. Leaders at various levels of government have taken drastic steps (some more than others) to lessen the impact this virus has on these vulnerable populations. However, there is one glaring blind-spot in the COVID response: the over 2 million individuals currently incarcerated in our nation’s prisons and jails.
Across the country prisons and jails are developing rapidly into hotspots for COVID-19, while local leaders continue to resist ever-growing calls by activists and concerned citizens to reduce jail populations and protect vulnerable inmates. It is increasingly clear that our leader’s failures to act are having devastating effects on our jail populations, and more must be done to protect inmates.
We all know that prisons and jails are hotbeds for infectious diseases. Inmates are individuals all of whom are uniquely at risk of exposure any virus like COVID-19. Jails are “tinderboxes” for infection because an outbreak can quickly spread within tightly closed areas. Also, the conditions that can keep diseases from spreading — such as social distancing — are nearly impossible to achieve in correctional facilities.
Additionally, proper healthcare and hygiene is difficult to find in our already overcrowded and poorly staffed facilities. Because of this, rates of infections at jails all across the country are rapidly increasing. In fact as of April 13th, the fastest rate of infection for any location in the United States was at the Cook County Jail in Illinois. These numbers should be eye-opening to our population, if we are really concerned about flattening the curve of this deadly pandemic.
What can our criminal justice leaders do to reduce the COVID risk in our prisons and jails?
Now more than ever it is incumbent upon leaders in the criminal justice system to swiftly enact measures to protect inmates. In fact Public health officials are calling on elected officials and corrections administrators to reduce incarcerated populations in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. In local criminal justice systems like ours in Douglas County, those individuals most in control of reducing the jail population are the district attorneys and prosecutors who act as gatekeepers to the correctional system.
Currently all across the country district attorneys are implementing new policies to reduce jail overcrowding in light of the coronavirus’ risks. Law enforcement in Bexar County, Texas, Philadelphia, Los Angeles County, California, Denver, Colorado and Tulsa, Oklahoma and other departments across the country are reducing arrests and broadening cite-and-release policies to reduce the number of people taken into custody. Corrections systems including those in California, New Jersey, Iowa, and New York are releasing individuals and reducing jail admissions.
If our criminal justice leaders are serious about public safety, immediate actions must be taken to protect inmates, including the following:
- Release all people serving a sentence who are within 6 months of their release date.
- Prioritize the immediate release of elderly and immunocompromised people.
- Release anyone who is held pretrial in local jails and who does not pose an unreasonable public safety risk.
- Stop new custodial arrests for any crimes that do not seriously risk public safety
- Release all juvenile offenders to in-home placements.
- Release everyone held on probation and parole for technical violations.
- Ensure that incarcerated individuals can communicate with their attorneys — including a guarantee of confidentiality and the ability to meaningfully access and review any relevant materials,
Additionally, for those that continue to be incarcerated, steps must be taken to ensure the preservation of constitutional rights and health and safety, including:
- An immediate end to any fees for phone calls made outside of the jail by inmates.
- Provide free hygiene products, including anti-bacterial soap, tissues, paper towels and CDC-approved hand sanitizer, inside of the jail.
- Publicly release information about the process for testing, treating, and preventing the spread of any COVID-19 positive people who either live or work in jails and prisons incarcerated inmates.
- Commit that anyone in the jail who tests positive for COVID-19 will receive medical care consistent with best practices, and whenever possible in a hospital to prevent further spreading in the jail.
Join Overstreet for DA in demanding action from our leaders to protect inmates in the Douglas County Jail.
Our local leaders can’t afford to sit on the sidelines while COVID-19 continues to spread in our inmate populations. The solutions outlined above are common sense, and will make our communities safer. We must demand action from our leaders to address this looming crisis.
That is why here in Douglas County, the Overstreet for DA campaign has demanded our leaders, including District Attorney Charles Branson, take swift and immediate action to limit the spread of COVID in the county jails. Our campaign is circulating a petition demanding the DA take action to protect the inmate population at the Douglas County jail. Anyone interested in demanding action from our leaders can sign the petition and forward it to friends and family for their signature as well. This is the only way we can convince our leaders to step-up and take the appropriate actions to save lives.
The primary role of a District Attorney is to keep those in our community safe. We can only do that by focusing our time and attention first on those who are the most vulnerable in our community. It’s easy to forget those in our nations prisons and jails, but if we don’t act now to protect them from COVID-19, we may not be able to live with the consequences.
To learn more about the COVID crisis in our nations prison’s and jails and what more can be done, go to the Prison Policy Initiative’s website, where detailed studies are available.
Also, be sure to go to our Action Network Petition to Reduce the Overcrowded Population in the Douglas County Jail. Sign our petition today and demand our local leaders take action!