In Houston, the massive county jail has stopped admitting people arrested for certain low-level crimes. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, people who usually spend their days fighting with each other—public defenders and prosecutors—joined forces to get 75 people released from jail in a single day. And outside Oakland, California, jailers are turning to empty hotel rooms to make sure the people they let out have a place to go.
Across the country, the coronavirus outbreak is transforming criminal justice in the most transient and turbulent part of the system: local jails. Run mostly by county sheriffs, jails hold an ever-changing assortment of people—those who are awaiting trial and cannot afford to pay bail; those convicted of low-level offenses; overflows from crowded prisons.
Even without a global pandemic, many local jails struggle to provide adequate medical care for a population that is already high-risk: many people in jails suffer from addiction or mental illness. Some have died after lax medical care for treatable illnesses.
“Basically, the shit hit the fan,” said Corbin Brewster, chief public defender of Tulsa County. “COVID-19 is just a magnifying glass for all the problems in the criminal justice system.”
Local officials’ responses have run the gamut. In the crisis of the moment, some are adopting measures long urged by criminal justice reformers: declining to prosecute or freeing people who have committed drug offenses or nonviolent crimes; releasing the sick or elderly; trying to reduce the jail population. In Seattle, county officials say they have transferred some detainees at high risk for COVID-19 complications to a jail in Kent, Washington, “to reduce exposure to the larger population.”
But others have stuck to tough-on-crime tactics or rhetoric. The sheriff in Bristol County, near Boston, argued the incarcerated would be safer locked up, as would the public.
Because millions of people each year cycle in and out of jail, experts have long warned that these lockups have the potential to be petri dishes of infection—an assertion coronavirus will test.
Already, at least one correctional officer and one prisoner at New York City’s Rikers Island jail have tested positive for the virus; others are under quarantine after exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. Quarantines are also underway in Silicon Valley, where a public defender who visited a Santa Clara County jail tested positive for coronavirus. The jail in Washington, D.C., began a quarantine of 65 detainees starting March 13 after a potential exposure during a trip to court.
At last count, federal data showed 758,400 people held in 3,100 local jails—but that number is only a snapshot at midyear 2019. The Prison Policy Initiative, a research and advocacy group, estimates that 4.9 million people flow through jails each year.
“It’s not like if there’s an outbreak in the jail, it stays in the jail,” said Jacob Reisberg, jails conditions advocate for the ACLU of Southern California.
Here are snapshots of how some of the largest jail systems in the country are managing in the coronavirus era.
California is home to several huge jails, including Los Angeles County’s, which typically houses more than 17,000 people. On Thursday, California’s governor ordered the entire state to shelter in place.
In the Bay Area, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office has released more than 300 people from Santa Rita Jail, one of the state’s biggest, with a population that hovers around 2,600 each day. Those released included people nearing the end of their sentences, as well as older and medically vulnerable people.
A sheriff’s spokesman said the agency was connecting those released with no place to go with local hotels that had empty rooms because the virus has decimated tourism.
“We have to be mindful that we’re not sending people out the door without resources, shelter and the necessities of life,” Sgt. Ray Kelly said. The office is also taking the temperatures of staff entering the jail; Kelly said he’d already had his checked twice that day.
Those who remain in custody have access to Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer. But because the sanitizer contains alcohol to kill germs, staff is squirting it onto inmates’ hands, said Sheriff Greg Ahern. To keep the population down, the sheriff told deputies to issue citations for most low-level crimes, rather than booking people into jail.
The Alameda County Public Defender’s Office released a statement supporting the moves. “Until we get a handle on this public health crisis, any jail sentence right now could be a death sentence,” said Public Defender Brendon Woods. “No one wants that.”
Across the bay, San Francisco public defenders had voiced frustration that the county’s jails had not yet released vulnerable groups. Aleem Raja, manager of the felony trial unit for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, said on Thursday that courts were still handling cases one by one. On Friday, a judge signed orders to release 26 people. Raja said the decision left him feeling more optimistic.
In Texas, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot told The Marshall Project he was frustrated about the slow pace of releases from the county’s jail, among the largest in the country. The jail population is now almost 1,000 over its typical average of 5,000. All jury trials have been canceled, so Creuzot worried those numbers would swell. His office has been working with defense attorneys and judges to release eligible people on personal recognizance bonds, he said.
In a city with a dire police staffing shortage and at least one officer testing presumptively positive for coronavirus, Creuzot also questioned why so many people were still being arrested for minor charges, like drug possession. Under state law, his office must be ready for trial within three months of an arrest.
“These drugs will not be tested within 90 days,” he said, so there’s no point in jailing people on those alleged offenses.
Because Houston’s Harris County jail holds a population equivalent to “three cruise ships,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez says, he has worked to reduce the number of inmates ahead of a potential outbreak.
By that point, jail officials had already arranged to test six inmates for the disease; as of late Friday only two tests had come back—negative.
The sheriff’s office said it would stop accepting people arrested for certain low-level offenses. Jail staff also started identifying those older than 50 who were awaiting trial on nonviolent offenses and then began asking courts if they could qualify for release. They also released half of the two dozen pregnant women in jail.
Gonzalez also began pushing for a broader compassionate release initiative that could see hundreds of nonviolent offenders let out—though that would require approval from the county executive, the sheriff’s office spokesman said.
So far, between fewer arrests and more releases, the sheriff’s office has managed to bring the daily average population down about 6.5 percent, to 8,500 people from 9,100.
“It’s amazing,” said Sarah Wood, a lawyer and policy director at the Harris County Public Defender’s Office. “I figured Sheriff Gonzalez would take this seriously, but I did not expect him to go so far as to try to take it upon himself to figure out who needs to be outside of the jail.”
Activity at Oklahoma courts began slowing this week, after the state’s Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals issued an order encouraging use of social distancing to reduce risk of the virus spreading among judges, court employees and the public.
The state prison system has already stopped taking in new prisoners, so now those with recent criminal convictions must wait at county jails. Historically, the Tulsa jail has dealt with overcrowding by having inmates sleep in plastic beds shaped like boats on the floor. Worried the delays in the court system would further pack the jails, the county’s public defenders began reviewing cases of the 1,200 detainees, and found 128 people sitting in jail on misdemeanors. They got most out through plea deals, bonds or time served.
On Thursday, the public defenders spent all day in court blazing through 82 felony cases with the cooperation of judges and prosecutors. Six public defenders worked at the courthouse; four others volunteered to set up inside the jail during the hearings, to have clients sign paperwork. They did this knowing they would have to self-quarantine for two weeks, according to Brewster, the chief public defender.
Among those released? A pregnant woman who was being held for possessing a firearm after a prior felony conviction. She had been arrested because she was in a car with her boyfriend, who had the gun, Brewster said.
In Louisiana, New Orleans jail officials have suspended volunteer family and legal visits as the city grapples with one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the country.
Orleans Parish officials say they’re screening prisoners and staff, handing out soap and showing detainees “training videos” on how to wash their hands.
In recent weeks the jail population has dipped under 1,000, despite some objections from prosecutors. As of Thursday, the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office said it had released 23 people who’d been held on minor charges.
“We have no individuals in custody on traffic offenses,” Sheriff Marlin Gusman said in a statement midday Thursday. “Our staff is reviewing a list of all state-law misdemeanors in custody and is individually contacting those respective judges.”
Derwyn Bunton, the chief public defender in the parish, stressed that the jail could do more.
"You have to stop business as usual, and they won’t commit to that,” he said Friday. “The sheriff hasn’t come out and said, 'We don’t want the vulnerable, we don’t want low-level offenses, and we don’t want probation holds in our jail.’”
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described where King County, Washington, moved detainees who were at risk for serious complications from COVID-19. They were transferred to another jail.