Prosecutors, public defenders and the Sheriff’s Department are all working to identify inmates who can be released from jail to reduce the threat of coronavirus transmission behind bars. (Jessica Christian/2017 S.F. Examiner)

SF moves to release inmates fearing coronavirus outbreak behind bars

Expert says ‘only a matter of time’ before pandemic reaches jails

San Francisco is scrambling to release dozens of inmates from County Jail to prepare for the distinct possibility of a coronavirus outbreak behind bars.

Both defense attorneys and prosecutors are busy identifying inmates who are close to finishing their sentences and could be released early, while jail medical professionals have pinpointed 45 aging inmates for possible release who are considered at risk of infection.

Experts agree that it’s a question of when, not if, an inmate or staff member will test positive for the highly contagious virus at County Jail.

Dr. Brie Williams, director of the Criminal Justice and Health Program at UC San Francisco, said the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak at County Jail is “very” real because inmates live in close-quarters. In addition, deputies come and go from the facilities, and arrestees cycle through the system daily.

“It’s only a matter of time,” Williams said, referring to the inevitability of a case of coronavirus being detected at County Jail or anywhere else. “The virus doesn’t respect the bars of a prison. There is nothing special about a jail that will keep it out, in fact just the opposite.”

Both Williams and Dr. Lisa Pratt, the director of Jail Health Services for County Jail, believe that San Francisco should reduce its inmate population to get ahead of a possible outbreak.

“At this point, public safety is related to public health,” Pratt said. “While there may be a risk to public safety from letting people out, there is a greater risk to public safety if we have an outbreak of 1,100 people who are in the jail as well as employees who are coming and going everyday.”

While there are no known cases of coronavirus among the inmates at San Francisco’s four jail facilities and hospital ward, the number of known cases in The City at large jumped to 70 on Thursday. And San Francisco has joined other Bay Area counties in ordering residents to shelter in place.

Williams said that jails should “drastically” reduce inmate populations to the point where public health recommendations like social distancing could be followed without issue. Jails should only be used as a “last resort,” and inmates should instead be held in other forms of custody such as home monitoring, she said.

“There are no known cases until there are,” Williams said. “If you don’t have the space and the ability to respond appropriately and effectively by the time the first case shows up, you’ve kind of missed your opportunity to contain.”

“We have a potentially unique opportunity right now to keep people healthy and not sentence them to the coronavirus,” Williams added.

On Wednesday, the U.S. recorded what may be the first known case of coronavirus in a jail at Riker’s Island in New York. Pratt said her peers at the facility have been overcome with an “overwhelming sense of doom.”

“It’s just potentially going to sweep through very quickly,” Pratt said.

Pratt said that San Francisco County Jail has instituted a number of measures to prevent coronavirus from spreading through the jails, including social distancing and grouping inmates into cohorts.

For instance, newly booked inmates are grouped together for at least a 14-day “incubation period” before being exposed to the general population, and aging inmates are being kept isolated away from the “churn” of the broader population.

While screenings have also been improved prior to booking, Pratt said there is a real possibility that the virus could enter the jails undetected.

“It’s virtually impossible to screen everyone in a way that will allow us to identify people who are positive but not sick,” Pratt said.

She has identified 45 inmates who are over the age of 60 and have underlying health conditions that she believes would fare poorly, or even die, if they were to contract coronavirus.

Their names have been presented to the district attorney, public defender, sheriff and courts to determine if the inmates could be eligible for release or an alternative to incarceration, Pratt said.

In an interview, Sheriff Paul Miyamoto said that San Francisco is fortunate to already have a low inmate population.

With the daily jail count showing exactly 1,000 of 1,506 inmate beds filled as of Thursday morning, The City has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

In prior decades like the 1990s, when the inmate count hovered around 2,300, people were double-bunked and had to sleep on the floor, Miyamoto said. As many as 15 were crammed into cells at the Hall of Justice meant for 12.

Now, Miyamoto said that the low inmate count has given inmates more space in the open dorm setting at County Jail #2, for instance, while just two inmates are being held in each 12-person cell at the Hall of Justice.

“I’m very happy that we have the ability to create social distancing with the population that we currently have,” Miyamoto said.

Miyamoto said the Sheriff’s Department also has the advantage of using multiple facilities to hold inmates, so the virus could be contained to a segment of the population if an outbreak were to occur.

The department has taken a number of precautions to prevent an outbreak from occurring, including suspending visiting hours.

Still, Miyamoto agreed that San Francisco should reduce its jail population.

“I want to keep our population safe,” Miyamoto said. “We do not have it in our system, and our mission is to make sure that it doesn’t get into our system.”

While other jurisdictions like Alameda County are expected to release hundreds of inmates over the threat of coronavirus, Miyamoto does not expect the numbers to be as high in San Francisco.

That is in part because San Francisco already releases low-level offenders from jail through other forms of custody including electronic monitoring, Miyamoto said. The City is only holding people for felony offenses, he said.

But the Public Defender’s Office is insistent that the jails need to be cleared out.

By the end of the week, the office is hoping to secure the early release of 34 inmates from County Jail, all of whom were due to finish their jail sentence in the next 60 days, according to Danielle Harris, a managing attorney for the office.

“These are people who the courts have already deemed safe to return to the community soon, and it’s in everyone’s interest for them to return healthy,” Harris said.

Harris said the 34 inmates were being held for a range of offenses but did not specify which.

The office has also filed dozens of motions to release inmates who are considered at-risk because of their age or a health condition, Harris said. Apart from Jail Health Services, the office has identified 33 inmates who they consider “medically fragile.”

“Pretrial incarceration in the county jail is not meant to be a death sentence,” Harris said.

Separately, the District Attorney’s Office is working on its own list of inmates who could be released due to age, medical condition or because they are within two months of completing their sentence.

And their list is not limited to the clients being represented by the Public Defender’s Office.

“We are currently balancing the important role we play in serving our community while also taking unprecedented measures to prevent COVID exposure to our victims, jurors, staff, law enforcement partners and justice involved people,” said Alex Bastian, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office.

District Attorney Chesa Boudin has also publicly called for inmates to be released alongside 30 other prosecutors across the nation. They released a letter Tuesday describing jails as potential “breeding grounds” for the virus and expressing deep concerns about the consequences of an outbreak.

As for the deputies who work in the jails, they have been given a set of guidelines to follow in the event of an outbreak.

“We believe that Sheriff Miyamoto is taking necessary precautions to prevent any spread of the coronavirus into the San Francisco jails,” said Ken Lomba, president of the San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association. “He is consistently evaluating the situation and making necessary changes.”

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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