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Coronavirus: As jail reduction continues, rush is on to manage hundreds of released people

Hundreds of inmates deemed low-risk or charged with nonviolent felonies continued to be released in the Bay Area last week, as authorities across the area acknowledged that the potentially deadly infection would likely spread rapidly through the confined space of a jail.

But as those selected for release leave their cells, officials and advocates have discovered that their reentry is creating a whole new set of issues, most notably posing the challenge of how to help the newly released reintegrate — and avoid getting sick — in a world that has changed dramatically since they were first booked into custody.

“Folks are coming out to this dystopia all alone, with very little to actually deal with a coronavirus world,” said Raj Jayadev, director of the South Bay social-justice group Silicon Valley De-Bug.

About 150 Santa Clara County pretrial defendants charged with nonviolent offenses were ordered released Thursday by Judge Eric Geffon, following hearings with prosecutors, defense attorneys and pretrial services officers. These defendants — who were in custody primarily because they could not afford bail — were allowed to leave on their own, with orders to appear at future court dates. Another large group of about 120 Santa Clara County inmates, who have 60 or fewer days left on their jail sentences, have also been approved for early release.  TOP ARTICLES1/5READ MOREMeet the Bay Area doctor who ordered America’s firstcoronavirus lockdown

By the end of this week, the county hopes to get the jail population down to below 2,700 — a 20% decrease from the roughly 3,200 people who were held as recently as two weeks ago.

Within hours of Thursday’s decision, De-Bug’s staff and volunteers rushed to local stores to buy dozens of tote bags and fill them with an assortment of basic amenities — toiletries, soap, socks, hand sanitizer — and a resource list to help those who suddenly found themselves out of jail and in need of shelter, food, and legal assistance. They brought the bags to the Elmwood jail complex to pass out to the defendants as they they exited.

“Releasing people is an important first step. But it doesn’t mean people are well equipped to get out and stay healthy and safe,” Jayadev said. “What we did was essentially scramble to see how we can best support people coming out of jail so they at least get a fighting chance for safety.”

The 20-percent jail reduction target was set by Dr. Alexander Chyorny, medical director of the county’s adult custody health services division, who wrote in a court declaration submitted Friday that in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, such a decrease in the inmate population was necessary “to improve prevention efforts; prepare for a containment response; and reduce safety/security and healthcare demands obligated by more inmates.”

Chyorny also cited crowded and shared dorm conditions in the county’s jail facilities, as well as “a small number of vacant single cells where we can isolate and quarantine people,” and the presence of “many medically fragile individuals who fall within the high-risk group” for COVID-19.

To help stem the influx of new inmates, courts and the county sheriff’s office have also been postponing surrender dates for out-of-custody defendants scheduled to start their jail sentences. “We’re very optimistic we’re going to hit that target,” Assistant District Attorney David Angel said.

Alameda County criminal-justice leaders have been aiming for similar jail reductions, approving the release of more than 300 inmates this past week. Of those, 67 were nonviolent pretrial detainees released on their own recognizance; another wave of 247 releases included many inmates who had 45 days or fewer left on their sentences. On Friday, San Francisco released 26 jail inmates who met similar criteria.

As these inmates are freed, Jayadev is realistic about the support that groups like his can provide — there are only so many tote bags they can assemble — though the rapid reduction, amid a much wider regional public health crisis, suggests the broader response and resources needed to ease the inmates’ reintegration may not be possible to mount. And while groups like De-Bug are trying to fill the vacuum, their role underscores just how swiftly the system moved to reduce the jail populations, leaving little time for the public support network — including probation officers and behavioral health and drug rehab facilities  — to prepare.

Defense attorneys have been lobbying for as many eligible inmates as possible to be released on their own recognizance rather than electronic monitoring, in part to ease the strain on the officers who would have to monitor them. What’s more, multiple law-enforcement sources told this news organization they don’t have enough ankle monitors and tracking devices to accommodate the sudden surge in demand.

And there’s no time to lose: In Santa Clara County several inmates have been put into quarantine after possible exposure to the coronavirus. An inmate who died Thursday, three days after he was booked into the Elmwood men’s jail, is being tested posthumously for the virus. Compounding the risk, multiple jail staff members told this news organization that inmates are still being allowed to congregate together, in apparent violation of social-distancing requirements outlined by public health officials.

“Given the history of sanitation and health issues the jail has had, that crisis is really combustible,” Jayadev said. “Every day that passes is one day closer to a catastrophic outbreak.”

The sheriff’s office insists it has been adhering to the recommendations of public-health officials as much as possible within the confines of a jail setting.

“We have been implementing social distancing within the jails, conducting frequent temperature checks and having smaller groups of inmates out of their cells at a time. In addition, all jail programs and in-person visitation have been temporarily suspended,” Sgt. Michael Low said in a statement. “We are doing everything we can to ensure the safety of not only our staff, but those in the community that we serve and those who are in custody.”

Robert Salonga
The Mercury News

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