Court Wednesday Orders Hundreds Released from Sacramento County Jails to Prevent COVID-19 Breakout

By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO – In a story first reported in THE VANGUARD earlier this week, hundreds of inmates from the Sacramento County Jails – in response to the threat of a COVID-19 breakout – were ordered to be immediately released from custody Wednesday after the Sacramento County Public Defender Office and the Sacramento County District Attorney Office signed off on the deal.

Sheriff Scott Jones confirmed his office was ordered to release the inmates – he estimated about 421 prisoners with less than 60 days remaining on their sentences would be free to go immediately. His office said the new-found space in the jails could be used for inmates who are found to be positive for COVID-19.

However, nothing in the court order issued Wednesday was said about inmates, who make up the majority of those in the jails, awaiting trial in custody largely because they can’t afford bail.

Late last week, by order of the court, about 46 individuals were released early from the jails, which normally house about 4,000 prisoners.

All of those released were reportedly low level offenders with 30 or fewer days left in their sentences. Another court order required law enforcement within the county to cite and release, rather than take to jail, those arrested on simple misdemeanor charges, so inmate numbers remain low in the jail.

“Because the parties agree that it is in the best interest of public health to reduce the population of the Sacramento County Jail System…the court finds good cause to order the Sacramento County Sheriff to…release all confined persons…who are serving county jail commitments with 60 actual days or less remaining on their sentence,” read the order signed Wednesday by Sacramento County Superior Court Assistant Presiding Judge Michael Bowman.

“This Order includes those persons with a projected release date from present to May 24, 2020. The Sacramento County Sheriff is directed to release qualifying persons within the parameters of this order forthwith, or at the earliest possible time but no later than March 30, 2020,” Bowman said

The order specifically excluded those serving time in jail for domestic abuse, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or sex offenses.

And, it’s not as though those being released early can just walk completely free.

The court said those released over the next few days must complete their sentences in the Sheriffs Work Release Program. Those with 30 days or less on their sentence will do that time in the program – those with 30-60 days left will do no more than 30 days in the program. Those who don’t agree to the sheriffs’ work program must turn themselves in to serve their time in jail.

THE VANGUARD reported Tuesday medical professionals, residents and community advocacy groups were demanding the immediate release of 1,000 or more non-violent inmates from Sacramento County jails because of the coronavirus threat that could decimate the state’s county jail and state prison populations – social distancing isn’t possible in overcrowded jails and prisons.

No Sacramento County Jail inmate has been identified as testing positive for the virus – although no one knows how much testing, if any, has been done in the jails. Seven state jail workers and one inmate have tested positive for COVID-19.

In Sacramento, justice reform and medical professionals note that a COVID-19 outbreak in the jails not only would be bad for inmates, but would put public safety personnel at great risk and take resources away from the community needed to help those contracting the virus in the community at large.

According to a “call to action” circulated in the social justice reform community, “Epidemiologists, Medical Doctors, Jail Medical Condition Experts, and Jail Condition Experts” could be called to testify about conditions inside the County jails.

Advocates note that “the impact of COVID-19 pandemic continues to increase with every passing day,” citing a county press conference last Thursday where the County announced a “Shelter-In-Place,” and District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said, “It is everyone’s moral responsibility to act today, not tomorrow or next week.”

Justice reform advocates are arguing, “As community leaders concerned for the health and safety of our community, we vehemently request this Court to act today, not tomorrow, or next week…(we) recognize our moral responsibility to protect the safety of all human beings inside our jail; including individuals housed in custody, Sheriff employees, medical professionals, social workers, and clerical staff.”

“It is only a matter of time before we become aware of COVID-19 cases in jail and prisons (there have been at least three, two at Folsom Prison, infections of personnel only) with subpar infection control measures in place, and whose population represents some of the most vulnerable. In this setting, we can expect spread of COVID-19 in a manner similar to that at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington, at which over 50% of residents have tested positive for the virus and over 25% have died in the past month,” according to the contents in one letter to the Public Defender.

“Such an outbreak would further strain the community’s health care system. Considering the extreme risk presented by these conditions in light of the global COVID-19 epidemic, it is impossible to ensure that detainees will be in a safe, secure and humane environment. This also compromises the civil rights of our jail tenants,” said the letter.

Advocates are recommending that County jails “implement community-based alternatives to incarceration to alleviate the mass overcrowding in facilities,” and immediately release “[t]he most vulnerable—the elderly, pregnant women, people with serious mental illness, and those at higher risk of complications….to avoid preventable deaths and mitigate the harm from a COVID-19 outbreak.”

The letter notes that the County should be “weighing the probability of negative impact. COVID-19 carries with it a negative impact for an entire community,” suggesting that County jails make it “impossible” to comply with Centers for Disease Control recommendations that could lead to an outbreak that will absorb resources the community needs, and also “destroy the lives of people working and living inside the jail.”

The letter insists that those in the County jails – well more than half of the inmates have not been convicted and are only waiting for trials – could be subjected “to being infected by a potential deadly virus without the means to protect themselves. We must hold our county accountable to the same standard that is the responsibility of each resident—do everything knowingly possible to stop the spread of this virus.

“(T)hose pre-adjudicated and stand-innocent-until-proven-guilty should not have to subject themselves to an infectious environment because they cannot afford counsel or bail…county jail employees who go to work every day should not have to sacrifice their own health because the structure of Sacramento County jail makes it impossible to comply with the CDC orders.

“Social distancing measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are nearly impossible in jails and prisons and testing remains largely unavailable. Isolation may be misused and place individuals at higher risk of neglect and death,” the letter warned.

And in a letter purportedly from “100 UC Davis Medical Health Professionals,” the health of prisoners was linked to the health of the community in the coronavirus battles.

“Prison health cannot be addressed in isolation from the health of the general population since there is a constant inter-change between the prison and the broader community, be it through the guards, the administration, the health professionals and the constant admission and release of prisoners. Prison health must therefore be seen as a part of public health,” the letter read, in part.

“Any further delay or failure to release inmates that pose low or no risk to public safety, and who are elderly, pregnant, or with mental and/or physical illness who are at higher risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus, may be given a likely death sentence if not released immediately,” said Elizabeth Kim, president of the Sacramento Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

Noting that any delay in reducing the jail population could cause “grave harm to not just inmates but correctional officers and law enforcement staff,” Kim urged county officials to “act quickly to prevent the violation of inmate human rights. and the impending sentence of death that will surely be the result if immediate release is not granted.”

Satana Deberry, District Attorney in Durham, NC, began taking steps in February similar to what the NLG’s Kim, and others are urging now in Sacramento.

“For incarcerated individuals, social distancing is not possible. Durham DA’s Office implemented a pretrial release policy that recommends people charged with nonviolent crimes be released from custody without monetary conditions,” Deberry said, noting that her staff is “reviewing the jail population…working proactively with defense attorneys and judges to identify people who could be safely released through a modification of release conditions or disposition of their case.

“Specifically, they have worked to identify individuals who do not pose a public safety risk, people who are over the age of 60, and people with health conditions that put them at high risk of illness due to COVID-19. We are also working with local law enforcement to ensure that only those few individuals who do present a danger to our community are brought to the detention facility during this emergency,” she said.

“Health officials, law enforcement and attorneys across the country have recognized the risk that COVID-19 could pose in detention facilities and begun to reduce incarcerated populations. People who are being held in detention are already a vulnerable population; they are frequently indigent and experience physical and mental ailments at higher rates than the general public. It is critical to their health and the health of facility employees that we take these steps,” the Durham DA said.

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