Imagine sitting in a crowded jail cell for days, weeks, even years, waiting for your day in court, not yet convicted of any crime, unable to make bail.
Now imagine yourself there amid the spread of COVID-19 — unable to wash your hands or socially distance yourself from dozens of other inmates. The entire time you're incarcerated, you have little to no access to quality health care. That is the grim reality for hundreds of thousands of people across the United States.
Today, a judge’s decision to set bail is the equivalent of a death sentence. With the virus rapidly spreading, COVID-19 is quickly infiltrating prison and jail settings where conditions are the worst.
Last week, an inmate died of coronavirus at Rikers Island. It was one of the first such incidents at the prison. According to a Time magazine report, 53-year-old Michael Tyson fell ill and, days later on March 26, was moved to the hospital.
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Tyson was booked into Rikers just the month prior for a technical parole violation. As of last week, more than 850 people within New York's correctional system — including inmates, staff and health care workers — had contracted COVID-19, according to a New York Times report.
Across this country, people are adhering to the federal and state mandates designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — washing one’s hands several times a day, avoiding mass gatherings, practicing social distancing. Restaurants and bars have been ordered closed to ensure there will be no massive crowds of people.
For the hundreds of thousands of individuals who are too poor to pay their bail and are subsequently housed in jail, it is impossible to comply with the government mandates preventing infection.
The spread of the virus is exacerbated by the close quarters of overcrowded jails. But it may find its way into a prison system through a number of different means. At Chicago’s Cook County jail, a correctional officer who tested positive for the virus immediately went into quarantine. Soon after, two of the jail’s 4,500 inmates also tested positive.
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In Dallas County, nearly two dozen inmates have tested positive for the disease. That's on top of the 12 members of the county sheriff’s office who contracted it. COVID-19 has also either taken lives or infected inmates at correctional facilities in Michigan and New Jersey.
The problem is severe.
It's also solvable.
Judges have used factors proven to rely on racial bias more than science to determine whether to set bail, such as the defendant's “risk of fleeing” and "dangerousness." While some have long argued (and stats have proved) that most individuals aren't flight risks, COVID-19 should eliminate that consideration entirely.
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Those pretrial incarcerated individuals who cannot afford to pay nominal amounts of bail surely cannot afford to “flee” given COVID-19 restrictions that have canceled flights. Furthermore, data from the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund — which provides money for people who can't afford the cost of waiting for trials at home — shows a 95% court attendance rate for individuals in their program who have been released.
New Jersey eliminated money bail in 2017, releasing thousands more people pretrial. The state did not experience an uptick in new crime or failures to appear. When Philadelphia did away with cash bail and more people were released, the city’s crime rate did not significantly change.
Counties and jurisdictions have always been burdened with the expensive and counterproductive responsibility of warehousing people in jail who have not been found guilty of a crime. But retaining pretrial individuals now not only adversely impacts those who are jailed, it also impacts prison employees, and those working on their behalf such as public defenders.
Acknowledging the problem, jurisdictions across the country are slowly releasing certain incarcerated populations. But far too many people are being left behind. These preliminary releases have just put a Band-Aid on a broken leg. They fall short of adequately dealing with what is certain to be a public health disaster.
Absent the release of the vast majority of pretrial detainees, this country will witness the deaths of many simply because bail was set too high and they could not afford their own freedom and the lifesaving measures accompanying that liberty.
The need to deploy sensible, proven, cost-saving and humanitarian solutions is ever so dire. There indeed are workable alternatives that fulfill criminal justice objectives and protect the health needs of a historically vulnerable population.
As we’ve seen in Brooklyn, if contact information is collected and people are reminded of their court dates, they show up. Just as our government leaders have shown faith in Americans to follow strict rules about where to go and who to fraternize with in order to “flatten the curve,” we need to have faith in our fellow citizens and release people out of harm's way.
There is absolutely no justification for placing lives of entire population groups in jeopardy simply because they are poor.
Seann Riley is director of partnerships for Uptrust, a technology company fighting mass incarceration.