An Ohio county is minimizing the spread of coronavirus in its corrections system by releasing inmates from its jail.
Overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and the presence of elderly inmates contribute to the fear that American jails and prisons are ill-prepared for the spread of coronavirus. Leonard Rubenstein, a senior scientist at Johns Hopkins, told Axios that prisons are the “perfect environment for the spread of COVID-19” because of these factors.
To reduce the risk to its county jail, the Cuyahoga County Court conducted hearings on a Saturday (something that happens rarely). They processed multiple cases that ended in plea deals, sentencing, court-supervised treatment, probation, or jail time at a state facility. By the end of the day, 28 low-level offenders were released. Officials have a goal of releasing 300 offenders before the situation worsens.
Reporter Cory Shaffer tweeted that one of the inmates released was arrested after a lack of bus fare prevented him from appearing in court.
Judge Brendan Sheehan says he has gotten two inmates out of the jail so far this am — one who was charged with theft because he got mad when he didn’t get a raise and stole a check and paid himself $600, another who got arrested because he didn’t have bus fare to come to court. pic.twitter.com/uQcRVreb04
— Cory Shaffer (@cory_shaffer) March 14, 2020
As of Monday, Cuyahoga County reported 24 confirmed coronavirus cases. Dr. Amy Acton, the director of the Ohio Department of Health, estimated last week that 100,000 Ohioans, one percent of the state’s population, was carrying the virus.
The concern for inmates is a national matter. Some states have canceled visitation, public defenders are calling for the release of non-violent offenders, and district attorneys are reconsidering bail policies. Reason‘s Scott Shackford reported in 2018 how America’s bail system keeps poor people behind bars despite not being convicted of a crime. The Prison Policy Initiative also found in 2018 that most people sitting in jail have yet to be convicted.
Some parts of the legal system are only implementing half-measures. A Baltimore youth defender tweeted that a judge denied a motion to release a 15-year-old charged with a misdemeanor while citing coronavirus as a reason to delay his trial.
Last week, Democratic and Republican senators submitted letters inquiring the Bureau of Prisons and Immigration and Customs Enforcement about their plans to keep inmates and detainees healthy during the pandemic.
Other countries are facing similar issues. Iran, which currently has the third-highest number of confirmed cases worldwide, temporarily freed 70,000 prisoners earlier this month to curb the spread of COVID-19 in jails.