As the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the world, one of the most vulnerable populations is the incarcerated. And in order to prevent an outbreak inside jail and prison walls, one California jurisdiction is taking the unprecedented step of releasing as many people as possible, or at the very least, trying to send fewer people in there to begin with, Slate reports.
Incarceration facilities are already hotbeds of outbreaks of communicable disease. People are crammed into tight spaces, sharing facilities — and leaving is not an option. What’s more, in many prisons, access to soap or hand sanitizer is limited, and medical care is haphazard at best.
COVID-19, the respiratory illness that derives from the novel coronavirus, could be particularly toxic inside prisons. The disease is known to affect those with underlying health conditions much more severely than healthy individuals, and prisons are filled with sick people. Lives of crime, drug abuse, poor self-care, and underlying diseases such as hepatitis — which is rampant in prisons — make that population particularly vulnerable to the virus.
In Santa Clara County, California, prosecutor Max Zarzana says that putting someone in the county’s jail is tantamount to a death sentence.
To that end, Zarzana is working with the public defender’s office, and with judges and the county jailer, to get as many people out of the facility as possible.
Zarzana notes that, a few weeks ago, he would have argued fervently that a suspect accused of stealing a car should be jailed, lest he steal again. Now, he says, he believes that property crimes shouldn’t result in incarceration while the defendant awaits trial.
“[I’m now arguing], ‘Judge, look, I know that if you let this person out, he really might steal somebody else’s car, but stealing a car is not worth a death sentence from dying in prison due to COVID or increasing the risk of exposure to other people,'” he says.
In fact, Zarzana is keen to have all suspects and convicts accused or convicted of property crimes removed from the jail.
“There’s a whole lot of crimes for which people are incarcerated that don’t necessarily have anything to do with harming another individual,” he said.
Similarly, inmates identified as “medically fragile” should also be released, he says.
Ultimately, the decision on whether or not to release a prisoner lies with a judge. But it appears that Zarzana’s plan is working: already a judge has signed off on 150 releases, beginning last Thursday. Zarzana hopes to see about 600 people, roughly 20 percent of the jail’s population, eventually released.