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The Pandemic

COVID-19 threatens vulnerable jail population

Reformists say more is needed to ensure the poor aren’t at undue risk in jail during the coronavirus crisis

Reform advocates say more efforts need to be made to ensure the poor aren’t being put at undue risk in jail during the coronavirus threat. (Daily Memphian file)
Reform advocates say more efforts need to be made to ensure the poor aren’t being put at undue risk in jail during the coronavirus threat. (Daily Memphian file photo)

At 72, Dorsey Childs is among the oldest denizens of the Shelby County Jail, where he’s been held since Jan. 4 on a $4,000 bond for alleged drunken driving.

Dorsey Childs

He is one of 118 inmates 60 or older – an age group considered at heightened risk for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. As the pandemic spreads, the incarceration of such vulnerable populations poses special challenges and troubling ethical questions.

It also raises fresh concerns about a cash bail system that critics say unfairly punishes the poor, including many nonviolent inmates held on bail bonds – some as small as $250 – they simply can’t afford.

“There are many, many, many people in this community that cannot afford a $250 ticket out of this jail and out of this potential nightmare,’’ said Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, a nonprofit criminal justice reform organization. What’s been a longtime discriminatory practice has now become “a ticking time bomb,’’ he says.

“We have a virus that we don’t understand and can’t control but probably – let’s be honest – probably (will be) in this jail. And, so, what we’re doing is the same thing we’ve always done: We’re putting a price tag on someone’s ability to buy their way away from this situation.’’

Spickler sent a letter asking for the release of juvenile detainees Thursday, March 19, to various local officials.

Aides to Sheriff Floyd Bonner said he was unavailable for an interview.

But in a written statement, his office said the jail has been planning for the coronavirus threat for weeks. Heightened screening there “includes a questionnaire for adults visiting adults in the Jail facilities, even though there are no contact visits’’ and the suspension of youth visitation. Inmates continue to receive telephone calls free of charge in accordance with an initiative by County Mayor Lee Harris, the release said.

Bonner also addressed the matter in a March 17 letter to Shelby County Commissioners after the topic was broached by several people, including  opens in a new windowCounty Commissioner Tami Sawyer, Memphis City Council member Michalyn Easter-Thomas and Shelby County Public Defender Phyllis Aluko.

“The jail houses pretrial detainees who are presumed innocent. It does not house convicted prisoners and has no ability to address their release,” Bonner wrote. “The Sheriff has no authority to release inmates absent court orders.”

Jail officials are reviewing files of inmates held on nonviolent charges “with bonds under $500 and/or with serious medical concerns’’ and are sharing the information with “criminal justice colleagues who can present them to the courts for possible release’’ without payment, the release said.

Spickler questions whether $500 is a high enough threshold – or whether officials are moving fast enough.

The Los Angeles Times reported this week that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Coronavirus prevention measures include authorizing deputies to issue citations in lieu of arrest for anyone whose bail would amount to $50,000 or less.

Bail requirements vary across the country and it’s difficult to compare amounts, yet Spickler, a former attorney with the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, said a $5,000 or $10,000 bond might be a more appropriate benchmark for automatic release in Memphis. An analysis by Just City found that among nearly 2,400 inmates in Shelby County jail facilities this week, fewer than 250 were being held on bonds less than $10,000.

And though the Sheriff’s Office says it’s reduced the jail population by several hundred over the past year, Spickler says there is still dangerously large number of inmates confined in tight areas where hundreds of jail guards go in and out every day.

“It’s like a parked cruise ship where people from land visit every day, hundreds of them, and then go back into their community,’’ he said. “So, it is just the worst possible environment for this infection. And yet we’re holding people on $250 bonds. I’ve got a pair of men who are in wheelchairs who have $100 bonds. What does this say about our system that a judge is willing to reduce that bond to the lowest possible bond of a hundred dollars or the second lowest two hundred fifty dollars, but not let them out?’’

Ultimately, the question of releasing nonviolent inmates to reduce the coronavirus risk is one for “judges to do something about,’’ Spickler says. “And they are not.’’

Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft couldn’t disagree more.

For one, the jail is much safer than Spickler depicts, he said.

“They’re doing a lot of work to make sure that nobody has that virus and is contagious and goes into the jail,’’ Craft said.

That work starts at the point of arrest when suspects are screened for symptoms. That includes taking a suspect’s temperature, Craft said.

“If there’s any indication they might have the virus, they go to The Med (The Regional Medical Center). They don’t go to jail. And they’re checked out for 48 hours. And only if The Med approves it do they go to the jail,’’ he said.

“It’s a whole lot safer, in my opinion, in the jail where all these people are being constantly checked … than it is being out on the street.’’

Memphis Police Department patrol officers are screening arrestees in “the same way as they would if they came in contact with someone who has tuberculosis, HIV, etc.,’’ MPD spokeswoman Karen Rudolph said in an email.

“Additionally, officers can use discretion when handling a misdemeanor incident and it is preferred that officers issue a misdemeanor citation in lieu of a physical arrest when able. However, every situation will be handled independently.’’

Craft said he expects the Public Defender’s Office to file motions soon to release “vulnerable people’’ such as those with weakened immune systems.

In a press release Thursday, March 19, Shelby County Public Defender Phyllis Aluko said her office plans to ask judges “to conduct a review of the detention orders or bonds set for our clients who are being detained pretrial on pending charges for which they have not been’’ convicted.

“We remain concerned that a crowded jail is an environment in which occupants are particularly vulnerable to a virus like Covid-19. We understand that the virus can be transmitted by people who appear asymptomatic, as well as by contact with contaminated surfaces,’’ the release said. “We worry that people being held, even temporarily, in a small shared cell will be unable to follow the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines that recommend social distancing and frequent handwashing with soap.’’

 Spickler said his organization will continue to post bonds for vulnerable, nonviolent inmates through his organization’s Memphis Community Bail Fund, a revolving fund supported by donations that helps individuals avoid “the potentially devastating consequences of extended pretrial detention.’’

According to Just City, each person unable to post bond spends an average seven additional days in jail. Not only is that costly for defendants who can lose employment and family support while incarcerated, it’s costly to the county as well. Those extra days in jail cost taxpayers $107 per night – as much as $2 million a year, Just City reports.

Bail bond companies that post bonds to guarantee a defendant’s appearance in court typically charge 10% plus taxes and surcharges.

The Sheriff’s Office said as of Wednesday, March 18, there were 2,131 male inmates in the jail at 201 Poplar and another 244 females at Jail East – 2,375 overall. That’s down by several hundred since the creation last year of a special position – jail expeditor – to reduce and stabilize the jail population.

The expeditor, former General Sessions Court Judge Mischelle Alexander-Best, works with the jail’s counseling and medical staffs as well as prosecutors and defense attorneys to determine if there are alternative placements for some inmates.

“The Jail is far from overcrowded and the adult populations are at or below the lowest points in years,’’ the Sheriff’s Office said in its release.

A review of the jail’s inmate roster early Thursday revealed nine inmates 70 or older and another 109 in their 60s. Despite their age, many were being held on serious charges including murder, rape and aggravated assault.

But there were others held on far less serious offenses including David Henderson, 65, who has been incarcerated since Jan. 29 on a burglary charge; Victor Reynolds, 67, held since Jan. 14 for alleged criminal trespassing and possession of drug paraphernalia; and Stanley Anderson, 66, arrested March 2 on charges involving theft of merchandise of less than $1,000.

Craft counters that bond situations can get complicated. Some nonviolent offenders simply refuse to show up for court while others can later become violent, he said.

“I have people that just, they’re drug addicts, and as soon as I let them out they’ll commit an armed robbery to buy drugs or they won’t show up for court because they’ll be high. So, how high should I set their bond?’’ he said.

Records show Childs, who has a history of motor vehicle-related offenses, was arrested in January in a Black Dodge pickup with auto tags registered to another vehicle. As an officer tried to pull him over, an extremely intoxicated Childs allegedly switched lanes “and collided with a Ford Escape’’ traveling in the opposite direction, an arrest affidavit said.

Releasing such individuals involves some risk, Craft said.

“They might go out and get in another wreck and have no insurance and hurt somebody,’’ said Craft, who is not hearing Childs’ case.

Nonetheless, the list of those now in jail includes several facing nonviolent charges ranging from forgery, possession of drug paraphernalia, trespassing, theft and vandalism.

For reformists like Spickler, bail bonds attached to those charges – yet unproven in a court of law – pose an undue hardship for many.

And now that they’re trapped in a confined area where individuals may be carrying the coronavirus yet showing no symptoms, it is a sort of double jeopardy, he says. Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys need to redouble efforts to ensure as many people as practicable avoid that trap, according to Spickler.

“The problem with all of this, is that the sheriff, has a jail full … of people who are at high risk, not (necessarily) because of their health, but because of the conditions of their confinement. Everything we know about this virus, you might as well say the jail, a jail is the worst place in the world to be.’’

This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Marc Perrusquia
Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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