Prison inmates are being released across the country to keep them healthy. What about our safety?


“Never let a crisis go to waste.”

Mere days after renowned “squad” member Ayanna Pressley suggested releasing prison inmates in her apparent attempt to “solve” the coronavirus pandemic, judges in Ohio are actually doing just that, as are criminal justice officials in Illinois.

Judges on Saturday in Cuyahoga County, home of Cleveland held special hearings to adjudicate pending cases with plea deals, release inmates back into the public, place them under house arrest, or send them back to prison, Fox 8 Cleveland reported.

Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan told Cleveland’s WOIO:

“It’s not a matter of if this virus hits us, it’s a matter of when. If it hits us and the jail, it will cripple our criminal justice system.”

“The goal of this is to protect the community and the safety of the inmates,” the judge also said. “If someone’s a serious violent person, well, we’re using our discretion to make sure the community’s safe also.”

Media reports say that about 1,900 inmates were held at the Cuyahoga County Justice Center last week.

The jail’s medical director Julia Bruner, along with Metro Health compiled a list of 325 of whom they deemed the most at risk of serious illness if they should become infected with COVID-19, said.

The list consisted of older inmates and those with chronic illness and history of respiratory issues, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified as factors that make someone vulnerable to the more serious effects of the virus.

WOIO said that between 200 and 300 inmates who were considered “low level” offenders were expected to be released after the hearings on Saturday. The hearings also aimed to transfer cases for vulnerable inmates over to the state Department of Corrections, which would allow more space to separate those still held at the jail and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus.

“The Court is collaborating with the County Sheriff’s Office, the County Prosecutor’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, and MetroHealth Medical Center to address the potential for COVID-19 in the jail, while still meeting the safety needs of the community,” Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas said in an earlier statement.

Justice officials were working on reducing the jail population as a preventative measure after at least 11 cases of the coronavirus were recorded in the county last week. On Sunday, Ohio reported they had 37 confirmed cases of the virus, up from 26 in the state on Saturday.

“If this virus hits, we’d have to release people on an emergency basis,” Sheehan said, explaining why the county was proactively trying to release some inmates “That could be even worse.”

“You gotta remember, the goal of this is to protect the community and the safety of the inmates. If someone’s a serious violent person, well, we’re using our discretion to make sure the community’s safe also.”

Sheehan also said the jail may need empty space in the event inmates need to be quarantined because of the virus.

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Meanwhile in Illinois, Cook County officials are trying to figure out what to do about their inmates. There were no reported cases in the county as of Monday, however they were trying to figure out a way to balance the rights and safety of the inmates and prevent a rapids spread of COVID-19 if someone were to test positive.

“People at the jail are in a confined area,” Sheriff Tom Dart told the Chicago Tribune. “If we get one infection, we’ve got a huge problem.”

There were increased calls statewide for so-called “compassionate releases” as a means to ease the pressure and burden on the jails, and also to protect staff and inmates.

In Cook County, officials were already considering a program of early releases for detainees who have “exceptional” healthcare needs, for example as long as they don’t pose a threat or flight risk.

On Monday, Dart’s office announced it had independently secured the first of the early jail exits.

Among those released were a pregnant woman the office said. The discussions regarding the potential releases involved Dart, the Cook County public defender’s office and the state’s attorney’s office.

“The office has already secured the release of several detainees deemed to be highly vulnerable to COVID-19, including a pregnant detainee and another detainee who was hospitalized for treatment not related to the virus,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

“Additionally, staff are reaching out to other jurisdictions regarding detainees who are in custody due to outstanding warrants on low-level offenses. Sheriff’s staff are asking those jurisdictions to either quash those warrants or geographically limit them so that those detainees can be released from Cook County Jail.”

Cook County Public Defender Amy Campanelli said the conversations covered the safety of “everybody who is in the building” and that officials were evaluating releases for detainees who do not pose a threat to the community.

Of course, while the development was welcomed by criminal advocates who monitor the jail, they released an action plan on Friday which urged Cook County officials to consider releasing anyone incarcerated in Cook County Jail on an unaffordable cash bond, limiting the admission of new people to the jail on cash bonds, and the immediate release of individuals over the age of 50 or those with compromised immune systems.

“Any developments that get people out are positive but we need much more dramatic changes,” said Sharlyn Grace, executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund.

Of course, they would probably be happy if Cook County just released everyone, because you know, justice.

Likewise, prison reform advocates in Illinois as well as attorneys are watching the situation with concern due to documented health care failings in the state prison system.

The system is currently under a federal consent decree to make significant changes to its health care delivery for inmates.

“This is the crisis point of a problem that has been boiling over for decades,” said state prison advocate Jennifer Soble, executive director of the Illinois Prison Project.

Those concerns led them to apply pressure on state officials for the compassionate release program.

On Thursday, dozens of advocates and attorneys sent a letter to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office asking that he “consider immediately ordering a review of all people in Illinois prisons and jails who are elderly or infirm, with an eye toward providing medical furloughs or compassionate release to as many of them as possible.” As if Chicago does not have enough problems as it is.

“I think there is no question that should the virus make its way into the prison system we are looking at a disaster,” said Alan Mills,, an attorney and executive director at the Uptown People’s Law Center.

“All of the sorts of things that are being said as to what you should do to slow the spread—wash hands and keep social distances—those things are impossible in prisons. And should it spread, the health care system is already stretched too thin. We just don’t have enough staff.”

Well let’s see…if you are in prison, it is a given that you are unable to maintain “social distances.” That is why they call them prisons. Good grief.

The jail has already canceled family visits, and has implemented screenings for staff and essential visitors. In addition, Dart said his staff has created a receiving area for new detainees, where they can be observed before they are integrated into general population.

Meanwhile, the state corrections system outlined a plan for dealing with the virus, including canceling visits except for attorneys who will be screened. They will also be providing expanded opportunities for video visits and phone calls.

Prison officials are promising to step up cleaning procedures, and said there will be hand sanitizer, antibacterial soap and routing cleaning and disinfecting, though prisoner advocates wanted more details on the plan.

These prison reform advocates seriously would be happy if every single inmate was released from jail. Pressure continues on Pritzker to seriously consider immediately releasing inmates.

“What I think the single most important thing the state could do to save lives and decrease capacity on local medical centers would be to release elderly inmates who are either close to their out date or who are no threat to community settings,” said Jobi Cates, executive director of Restore Justice Foundation, a state prison advocacy group.

“So they can control their own fate. They can isolate, they can take care of the ability to maintain distance. In the system they can’t.

Yes, let’s release a bunch of inmates. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? This is a Democrat’s dream. 

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