Coronavirus prison break as jails are emptied

Human Rights activists prepare for a car caravan protest through downtown Los Angeles to call on officials to release inmates from jails to prevent the spread of coronavirus, April 7, 2020 in Los Angeles, California./Robyn Beck /

San Diego County and California prisons and jails were being emptied of prisoners this week, part of a dramatic release of inmates aimed at slowing the spread of the virus, which can race through institutional populations with deadly impact.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department released around 400 inmates without bail Wednesday and Thursday in compliance with a state order to reduce prison populations to prevent the spread of COVID- 19, Sheriff Bill Gore said.

Nearly 1,200 inmates incarcerated for nonviolent misdemeanors or with fewer than 60 days remaining on their sentences have been released early from county facilities, reducing the county inmate population from 5,600 to 4,400, according to City News Service.

Coronavirus outbreaks have already been reported in lockups across the country, and more are expected.

Governments and jail and prison officials are releasing thousands of inmates, crediting time served in plea deals or granting early release to nonviolent offenders with short terms remaining on their sentences.

In California, attorneys representing prisoners appealed to Gov. Gavin Newsom to approve targeted releases of older inmates and those with chronic medical conditions. The state announced March 31 that it would grant early releases to 3,500 prisoners, 3% of its prison population, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. By that time, COVID-19 cases had been documented at 10 of its 35 prisons. Counties also are releasing some of their 67,000 or so jail inmates.

New “Zero Bail” emergency order

Vista Jail/File

Adopted by the Judicial Council of California last week, th nw order stipulated that by 5 p.m. Wednesday, all inmates not charged with a serious or violent offense be released or be in the process of being released with no bail. Gore said he had 500 inmates fitting that description

One caveat to the order is that if the prosecuting attorney seeks to increase an inmate’s bail amount, they will remain incarcerated. Gore said this applied to around 100 inmates.

The sheriff expressed concerns with the sweeping scale of the order, claiming his facilities have done a “responsible job” reducing jail populations and preventing the spread of the virus. Some of his office’s measures include “enhanced screenings” at county facilities and placing a temporary ban on visitors and contractors at the same facilities.

Gore said only three cases have been reported in county inmates, two of which have been released.

The remaining case remains in custody.

Across California and the US, prisoners were being released in significant numbrrs du to the coronavirus emergency.

Terry Smith, a 65-year-old Vietnam veteran with PTSD, multiple health issues and a history of homelessness, spent nearly three years in San Francisco County Jail awaiting trial on a burglary charge. The final several weeks were served in the full flush of a burgeoning viral pandemic.

He considers himself lucky.

Out and about

“I’m out, and I had a place to go,” Smith said in a telephone interview with Kaiser Health News from the halfway house where he lives. “If you’re in there, you’re just in a breeding ground for infection — and this coronavirus is no game.”

In fact, the jail where Smith was held has profoundly thinned its population, part of a dramatic release of inmates from California prisons and jails aimed at slowing the spread of the virus, which can race through institutional populations with deadly impact.

San Francisco’s district attorney, Chesa Boudin, has instructed his prosecutors to consider giving credit for time served in the plea deals they negotiate. Boudin also told prosecutors not to oppose motions for those in pretrial detention to be releasedif they present no public risk.

Partly because of that, the county’s jail population is dwindling. San Francisco Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Nancy Crowley said that as of April 12 the county’s jails, which housed more than 1,200 people in January, were down to 749. That reduction allowed for the kind of physical distancing that the CDC recommends, Crowley said. Newsom, meanwhile, signed an executive order freeing up $50 million to lease hotel rooms and buy travel trailers to house the homeless, including those recently released from jails.

Using similar release criteria, Los Angeles County’s jail system, the largest of its kind in the U.S., has dramatically reduced its count, going from more than 17,000 inmates at the end of February to 13,586 in early April.

The L.A. sheriff’s office said several employees and four inmates had tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 8; San Francisco had no positive tests among those incarcerated, although four staffers had been diagnosed.

On Tuesday, Newsom signed an executive order aimed at making it easier and faster to release qualified juveniles from detention.

There has been little organized opposition to the moves. The California State Sheriffs’ Association did oppose a zero-bail emergency measure for specific misdemeanors and felonies because it included those accused of child and elder abuse.

Jails where populations have yet to be reduced are grim scenes in the pandemic, Terry Smith said. Although he had his own cell because of his age and poor health, most people in the county jail were housed “four to a box,” in close quarters with two bunks, he said.

The food system, Smith said, worried him constantly. He said he counted nine employees who touched his tray of food before he ate. “That’s nine guys without a mask,” he said.

The City screens for COVID-19

Downtown San Diego jail/KGTV screenshot

Crowley said that county staffers are required now to wear gloves and masks. New inmates are screened aggressively for symptoms or potential exposure to the coronavirus, and the county has stopped all visits and taken other measures to maximize safety.

Because Smith had a prior conviction, his public defender, Eric Quandt, had been unable to secure a plea deal despite asserting that Smith had already served the likely maximum sentence for his first-degree burglary charge while awaiting trial.

Smith, though, is in recovery for heroin addiction and also has seizures and severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, or COPD. Using those details, Quandt was able to obtain an emergency release and get Smith placed at the Metropolitan Fresh Start House, a program designed to give homeless veterans new direction and, often, track them into jobs through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I don’t want to be sent to the street, and I’m not going back to jail for nobody,” Smith said. “The virus is already in the jails. You don’t want to be there.”

In Michigan and Colorado, governors signed orders allowing for early releases of vulnerable inmates. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered the state’s corrections department to compile a list of those eligible for a commutation of sentence. U.S. Attorney General William Barr, meanwhile, directed the Bureau of Prisons to use home confinement measures to release vulnerable people from federal facilities in Louisiana, Ohio and Connecticut that have been buffeted by the coronavirus.

There is, however, no universal policy or process. Governors in Texas and Arizonahave either denied or hampered efforts to enact early releases. Florida and Wisconsin officials announced they would no longer accept new inmates at state prisons but said nothing about releases, thus transferring the problem to city and county jails.

Jails and prisons alike confine people too closely to follow guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Used by permission, parts of this story was produced by Kaiser Health News, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the Kaiser Family Foundation   California Health Care Foundation. For more, visit California Healthline.

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