Corona Swats Prison Inmates and Pre-trial Detainees

The coronavirus strain that has swept the nation threatens health, economic and mental breaking points, but it has taken a particularly hard toll on the powerless. The working-poor typically have no babysitters when schools close and their income tends to evaporate with their hourly-wage work schedule when managers shut things down until further notice. 

The mandatory shut down extends to everything, even the court system where pre-trial detainees now await a court date that may or may not happen. 

Mississippi courts announced a slew of closures, scale backs and rule changes this month in an effort to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

The Fifteenth Circuit Court District, which includes Jefferson Davis, Lawrence, Lamar and Pearl River Counties, issued a standing order delaying all jury trials set on or before April 14 to an unnamed date. The Fourth Circuit Court District and the Tenth Circuit Court District, which includes Kemper County, Lauderdale County and others, are closed for at least two weeks. (Two weeks is only the initial plan and the shutdown could extend as long as the virus is a threat.) Tippah County Circuit Court jumped in, as well, and closed jury trials down until the Mississippi Supreme Court deems it safe. By March 19, George County Circuit Court had closed its doors. 

Other courts immediately followed suit. Adams County Circuit Court canceled all court appearances until April 21, and judges in the Twentieth Circuit Court District for Madison and Rankin Counties issued orders continuing all criminal cases set for trial on April 20.  

City courts are closing down, too, with municipal courts in Brandon, Waveland, Diamondhead, Bay St. Louis, Hernando and Clinton hopping out the window. Others are sure to follow suit by the time this article gets posted. City courts are traditionally known for handing down citation fines and don’t deal with criminal matters, but the circuit courts are the places where pre-trial detainees often stew in prison for criminal allegations. This is a big issue for Hinds County which also ordered continuances for all civil and criminal matters until further notice. 

A consortium of inmate advocates aligned this month to demand sheriffs and parole boards do everything they could to cut the inmate population. This includes pre-trial detainees. 

The consortium, which consists of the ACLU of Mississippi, FWD.us, the Mississippi NAACP, the Mississippi Center for Justice, Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition, Mississippi Rising Coalition, the Southern Poverty Law Center and The People’s Advocacy Institute, asked sheriffs to do everything in their power to keep facilities well-staffed and not to fall into the trap of reducing staff to a skeleton crew. They also demanded that facilities “ensure that (inmate) facilities are as empty, safe and as clean as possible.” 

County sheriffs are responsible for managing jails, so the group requested they sanitize facilities and coordinate with local public health experts to ensure detainees and staff have adequate soap, sanitizer, tissues and other hygiene products. In an open letter to stakeholders of the criminal justice system, they also demanded that sheriffs properly care for those who become infected while under their control and “implement non-punitive procedures for housing people who are exposed to the virus, who are at high risk of serious illness, or who screen or test positive for COVID-19,” without resorting to prolonged, wide-spread lock downs, which many critics consider inhumane. 

The group demanded that local sheriffs screen the incarcerated population and pre-trial detainees for people listed by the Center for Disease Control as “particularly vulnerable” for immediate release. This includes people who would be released within the next 60 days. They also asked sheriffs to suspend ICE detainments and cease “all practices of holding people in local jails and prisons for civil immigration purposes,” and allow health officials and professionals to scrutinize released people for COVID-19 symptoms in order to protect the community. The group requested local authorities also not curtail legal visits even as the courts closed down. 

The consortium then turned its attention to probation and parole agents and parole boards, pleading with them to filter eligible inmates back into their homes and communities as quickly as possible. 

Aside from allowing check-ins by voice or video call, whenever possible, or temporarily suspending check-in requirements, the group asked agents to “suspend detainment and incarceration for technical (crimeless) rule violations.” 

“Parole boards should expedite and expand release opportunities for incarcerated people, reducing the populations in prisons as is recommended by health experts,” the group stated in the letter 

“Boards should institute a presumption for release for all people who have a parole hearing scheduled in the next two years. For people whose parole hearings fall outside that time frame—with a focus on populations identified by the CDC as particularly vulnerable—evaluate and seize all opportunities to expedite that process to ensure that anyone who would be released from incarceration at any point has the opportunity to be screened for release immediately.” 

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