Push to release inmates during COVID-19 pandemic

Apr 30, 2020

An APR News Feature --Part of an innovative collaboration between Alabama Public Radio, the commercial newsroom at WVUA23-TV, and the University of Alabama's Center for Public Television.

Concern is growing over if Alabama’s jails and prisons are prepared to battle the coronavirus pandemic. This comes as the first Alabama prisoner died from COVID-19 in recent weeks. Some advocates say changing guidelines for release in Alabama’s detention centers could help slow the spread of COVID-19.  

Jenny Carroll is a professor of law at The University of Alabama.

“We’re trying to flatten that curve within the jail and prison systems. And I think a component of that has to be consideration of release,” she said.

Carroll is joining other prison advocates in asking Governor Kay Ivey to consider early release and alternative detention for elderly and low-risk prisoners to keep the coronavirus from spreading.

“When you’re in a dense population that’s unable to social distance like a jail or prison, the probability that the infection rate is going to be high is not surprising,” Carroll said.

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The push for early release comes amid growing concern that Alabama’s prisons are unprepared to manage COVID-19. An internal document from the Department of Corrections said severe overcrowding and understaffing make it impossible to keep prisoners and employees from contracting the virus.

The plea from inmates is sparking outrage as the D.O.C. document said system-wide shortfalls could result in widespread infection. That could prompt the need for military intervention and the deaths of hundreds of inmates. Carroll said this shows the state’s detention centers are not equipped to handle the coronavirus.

“There have been a lot of complaints that we’re hearing from inmates that they aren’t getting tested,” Carroll said. “When they request testing there are often delays and the testing. And beyond that, we know local facilities that there’s just not access to testing.”

Carroll is one of several activists pushing for early release and alternative detention for non-violent and older prisoners. Alabama Democratic Senator Doug Jones said ankle bracelet monitoring for certain inmates is a step in the right direction, but it has to be done right and with caution.

“I think this is something that has to be looked at very seriously,” Jones said. “You don’t want to put people out in the community who are going to be predators, who are going to be violent offenders, those that aren’t ready.”

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A mandate from Ivey allows county jails to reduce the number of inmates they house. It allows for releasing probation and parole violators who have been in jail for 20 days without a hearing if they aren’t being held on other criminal charges. Many detention centers are also turning away visitors, only allowing staff inside who can pass screening tests.

Officials with the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles recently announced they will re-start parole hearings in May after canceling hundreds of hearings due to COVID-19. 

But Carroll said that isn’t enough. She said more needs to be done in jails and prisons to protect the inmates who are in detention long-term. Carroll said those systems being unprepared are putting the inmates’ lives at risk.

“Even those that have been convicted, they’ve been convicted and sentenced under our state system,” she said. “This does not include a death penalty for every offense. And essentially by leaving them in those jails and prisons, you are ineffectively sentencing them to a randomized death penalty.”

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After news of an Alabama inmate dying from the coronavirus, state corrections officials said they have quarantined some inmates at various facilities who might have been exposed to the virus. They also provided “necessary guidance and health education” to those individuals and staff. The department also said inmates will only be tested for COVID-19 if they show symptoms and have a physician’s order.

But the steps taken by A.D.O.C. aren’t putting inmates at ease, including this one who spoke to CNN saying, “My thing to the outside world is help. Help. Help for the overcrowding. Help for sanitary purposes. Help for a release mechanism. We need to release some of these people. We need help.”