Calls Mount for Release of Vulnerable Prisoners as Justice System Struggles to Respond to Coronavirus

California Medical Facility in Vacaville is one of California's 35 state prisons. Advocates are calling for the early release of low-risk jail and prison inmates who are vulnerable to coronavirus. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

As much of California life grinds to a halt because of the coronavirus pandemic, some groups are asking local and state officials to take sweeping actions — including letting people out of prison or jail early — to protect those who are incarcerated or otherwise connected to the state’s criminal justice system.

So far, state and local officials haven’t responded with any wide-scale releases. Most lockups, including state prisons, have suspended visiting hours and programs in order to guard against the spread of the virus.

But courts are still operating: San Francisco Superior Court, for example, is delaying civil trials and telling lawyers, jurors and defendants not to come to court if they are sick but so far has not suspended in-person operations.

Among those calling for a widespread early release of prison and jail inmates are civil liberties groups. Last week a group of two dozen, including the ACLU, sent a letter to California officials demanding that Gov. Gavin Newsom take extraordinary steps to protect the state’s roughly 123,000 prison inmates from the coronavirus — including the early release of some low-risk prisoners.

The groups singled out those who are most vulnerable — the medically fragile and people over 60 — as well as those already scheduled for release in the coming weeks and months.

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Lizzie Buchen, ACLU Northern California’s criminal justice project director, noted that state prisons remain at about 130% of their designed capacity in California.

“Prisons and jails are such breeding grounds for disease ... and they are just packed and overcrowded with people who are extremely vulnerable to this disease, including people who are elderly and people with other underlying health conditions like asthma and cancer and HIV,” she said. “They are in conditions that are the perfect breeding grounds for coronavirus to spread. It's unsanitary. People are sharing things. People are sharing toilets. People share close airspace. ... [It’s a] combination that will result in a humanitarian crisis."

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San Francisco Assessing Jail Population

San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju announced Thursday that his office is filing motions seeking to secure the release of all pretrial detainees who are at heightened risk for the virus because of their age or compromised immune systems.

Raju has also called on local police to reduce “unnecessary contact” with the public, including suspending low-level arrests.

Raju asked San Francisco Sheriff Paul Miyamoto to assess the jail population and identify anyone eligible for immediate release through work release or electronic monitoring.

“I'm asking for people in law enforcement to really alter behavior based on the fact that we are in an international health crisis,” he told KQED News. “There are at least 300 people in the jail ... [who are] going to be released in six months or less. ... All I'm saying is that if they're going to be released in a few weeks, let's look at just releasing them now.”

Miyamoto responded that his agency is already doing that as part of its normal operations.

Miyamoto also noted in an interview Friday that inmates do have access to health care — sometimes better care than some may have access to in the community, he argued — and said jails are set up to allow people to quarantine in cells.

A few hours after Friday's interview, Miyamoto decided to suspend jail visits. He said the department is ensuring that inmates can continue to communicate with their lawyers and is working to ensure that families can keep in touch.

“We are sensitive to the difficulties that suspended visits may cause families of the incarcerated,” he said in a written statement. “We value visitation as an essential part of rehabilitation and encourage families to stay in touch with their loved ones and friends through phone calls and letters. We are reviewing our jail operations and will make adjustments to accommodate future visiting."