Coronavirus: US pretrial detainees face ‘possibility of death’

Thousands of people held in US jails have not been convicted of current charges but still face COVID-19 threat.

Jail facility
The Maricopa County Estrella Jail in Phoenix, Arizona [File: Ross Franklin/AP Photo]

More than 65 percent of the 740,000 people held in local jails in the United States have not been convicted of the charge on which they are being held in any given year, according to government figures.

At Santa Rita Jail (SRJ) in Alameda County, California, one of the largest jails in the US, the percentage of inmates held in pretrial detention sits at roughly 75 percent of the daily average of 2,500 inmates that are pre-trial detention.

These individuals are held without being proven guilty of current charges.

Pretrial detention has been highlighted over the last two months as novel coronavirus makes its way to prisons and jails across the United States, with lawyers and others calling for those who have been charged, but not convicted to be released. 

According to figures compiled by the New York Times, there are at least 1,324 coronavirus cases in prisons and jails, and 32 deaths from COVID-19, the disease the virus causes. 

The sign marking the entrance to the New York City Department of Corrections Rikers Island facility in Queens, in New York [Shannon Stapleton/Reuters]

SRJ, which confirmed its first coronavirus case on April 4, had at least 12 COVID-19 cases as of Friday. At least two employees had also tested positive. 

“We’ve been sounding the alarm for more than three weeks, and now we’re on the verge of the virus sweeping through the jail,” Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods said in a statement emailed to Al Jazeera. “I don’t think prosecutors have gotten the message about how serious this is. They’re moving far too slowly and now people in custody are getting sick.”

National, state and local authorities have called for the widespread release of pretrial detainees and those locked up for nonviolent crimes to in an effort cut prison and jail populations to flatten the curve in detention centres.

But “the basic underpinning of what’s happening across the country can be best described as incredible variability”, said Cherise Fanno Burdeen, an executive partner at the Pretrial Justice Institute, an organisation that pushes for pretrial detention reform in the US.

Some states have taken measures to downsize their jail populations, while others have taken a measured approach, Burdeen told Al Jazeera.

Still, some authorities are “saying absolutely ‘no one'” will be released.

Keeping those accused of nonviolent, low-level crimes imprisoned is “really essentially sentencing people to the possibility of death”, Burdeen said.

SRJ began releasing detainees in March after an agreement between court officials and public defenders. The population has been reduced from 2,597 on March 1 to 1,979 on April 9 in an effort to combat the spread of the virus.

California agreed to end cash bail for people charged with low-level crimes on April 6, a temporary measure that goes into effect at 5pm local time on April 13.

The Public Defender estimates there are approximately 115 people currently serving time who are scheduled for release in the next six months. Over half are scheduled for release in May, it said in the statement.

For organisers who work with inmates at SRJ, however, the releases are not enough.

“Releasing 200 or even 500 people, is still a fraction of the people who are still incarcerated,” said Riley Williams, a member of Santa Rita jail Solidarity, a coalition that advocates for the release of inmates during the crisis.

Healthcare concerns

Critics also argue that jails and prisons often have unsanitary conditions and lacklustre healthcare.

SRJ saw a six-day hunger strike over conditions from inmates in November, with a follow-up civil rights lawsuit that month wherein five inmates alleged “inhumane” conditions at the jail.

Another class-action suit alleges poor conditions for inmates with mental health issues. The jail reportedly has a higher death rate in detainees than that of the Los Angeles jail system, the largest in the US, though SRJ officials dispute the total number of deaths.

In March of this year, a collective grievance signed by more than 400 inmates demanded improvements in sanitation and health conditions, Williams said.

While pre-trial detainees are a large percentage of Santa Rita’s – and the nation’s – detained population, many others have been convicted of crimes that preclude them from being released. But family members worry what that may mean for their loved ones, especially those who have conditions that may make them more susceptible to COVID-19.

Dana* told Al Jazeera her son John* has a pre-existing condition, disseminated valley fever, a fungal infection that targets the lungs and can be long-term.

John was convicted of a violent felony that would likely preclude him from release.

“I’m very concerned about his health,” Gonzalez told Al Jazeera, citing concerns about healthcare in SRJ.

John is housed in the same area of the jail as the detainee who first tested positive with coronavirus. Gonzalez said hygiene and social distancing are nearly impossible for him, as he is often held with cellmates and doesn’t have access to enough soap.

“It’s all too much,” she said.

A new normal? 

The Public Information Officer for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Ray Kelly told Al Jazeera in an email on Wednesday that in “the coming days we will see a large number of releases based on the orders of the judicial council and Chief Justice.”

Kelly directed Al Jazeera to the Alameda County Sheriff’s website, which has details regarding the jail’s efforts to quarantine inmates who may have been exposed.

For Burdeen, the coronavirus pandemic highlights “why we’ve been pushing for this reform prior to this”.

Burdeen pointed to policies of states like New Jersey, which has seen a steady decline in pretrial detention after making numerous reforms, including effectively ending money bail in 2017.

Though California will likely return to money bail after the virus ends, it is possible that it and other states will see the benefit of lowering pretrial detainee populations through reform, Burdeen said. 

Proactive steps towards pretrial reform that the coronavirus necessitates are “what we hope we will be able to see in terms of a new-normal” after it is over, Burdeen concluded.

*Names have been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.

Source: Al Jazeera