Jail inmates at the highest risk from coronavirus are among those being considered for early release. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner file photo)

Threat of coronavirus outbreak in SF jails prompts early release of 26 inmates

More than two dozen inmates will be released from County Jail early as San Francisco seeks to reduce the jail population and prevent an outbreak of coronavirus behind bars.

San Francisco Superior Court judges signed off on the early releases of 26 inmates Friday, according to the Sheriff’s Department. Each of the inmates was already scheduled to be released within the next 60 days.

While there are no known cases of coronavirus inside the jails, experts believe it is only a matter of time before an inmate or staff member tests positive for the highly contagious virus. Medical professionals, alongside the public defender, district attorney and sheriff, have all agreed that the jail population should be reduced.

The idea is to shrink the inmate population to a point where jail medical staff can implement public health guidelines like social distancing without issue, and maintain control if an outbreak were to occur.

Nancy Crowley, a spokesperson for Sheriff Paul Miyamoto, said the releases will allow the Sheriff’s Department to “expand the social distancing protocols that have been put into place across all three jails as well as our intake and release center.”

Crowley said the department helped place 13 of the 26 inmates in supportive housing or behavioral health programs, while the other inmates already had housing to return to upon release from jail.

On one morning earlier this week, San Francisco had exactly 1,000 inmate in its jails, which have a capacity of more than 1,500. Miyamoto has said he does not believe the facilities are overcrowded.

Before the Sheriff’s Department announced the releases on Friday, Public Defender Manohar Raju had called on Miyamoto to do more to protect inmates.

“More should be done to proactively forestall disaster if the virus does make its way inside our jails,” Raju wrote to Miyamoto in a letter Friday. “Given the information provided by our governor yesterday, this reality seems almost inevitable.”

Raju may have been referring to an estimate from Gov. Gavin Newsom, who anticipated that 56 percent of Calfornia would be infected with the virus in the coming weeks unless mitigation efforts are taken.

Raju called for the jails to release at-risk inmates who are older than 60 or have underlying health conditions, inmates who are due to be released within 6 months and “anyone who is in jail due to inability to pay bail.”

He also wanted the sheriff to consider releasing inmates who are scheduled to be released within the next year if they have completed programming.

“The threat of this situation extends far beyond the most immediate physical health concerns,” Raju said. “The stress and mental health effects of the pandemic are particularly acute for those who are detained or have a loved one who is. Family separation is always a serious issue.”



This story has been updated to include additional information.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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