To slow the spread of COVID-19, county attorneys consider releasing some jail detainees

Clay County Correctional facility cell.
A cell in the Clay County, Minn., Correctional Facility in October 2018. With so many people coming and going, jails can be breeding grounds for germs. Officials are trying to figure out how to keep more people out of jail while keeping the community safe.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News file

Some Minnesota county attorneys are trying to figure out how to keep more people out of jails, which can be prime breeding grounds for the spread of the novel coronavirus. Jail administrators say they’re weighing how to keep people safe, inside and outside of the facilities.

Here’s what’s happening:

How would this work? Are county attorneys just letting people out of jail?

It’s important to remember that people in jail haven’t been convicted of anything yet. Most people in jail are being held there because they can’t afford bail — not because they did something so bad that they pose a threat to public safety. So, county attorneys are trying to figure out who can safely be let out and how to get them out.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said Tuesday his office is looking at releasing people from jail who don’t need to be there. His office has been working on reforming bail rules for roughly a year, so the new coronavirus outbreak is just speeding things up.

And on Monday, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman announced that his office is working with public defenders and others to see who might be able to be released safely. The state public defender’s office has been calling for the release of nonviolent offenders to protect them from the disease.

What about people who aren’t in jail yet — people who are being arrested now or in coming days and weeks?

When a person is arrested, he or she obviously is sent to jail. But it also means there are more people in courtrooms to face the charges.

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Choi said his office is trying to find ways to assign court dates for people and figure out how to make sure they actually show up for them.

"What we could be doing,” he said “is just essentially giving somebody a court date at a later time,” he said, adding that the unpredictability of the outbreak makes it hard to know when to schedule the court appearance. “It would just be out at a future date when they would have to do some reporting to just check in with us."

It may sound like radical changes, but all of these things — bail reform, shrinking jail populations and taking a closer look at the kinds of crimes people are charged with — have been getting a lot of attention in the world of criminal justice reform for a long time.

What is happening there to keep the detainees and the officers within the jails?

Jails can be a particular problem during a pandemic simply because of the way they're set up. There are large numbers of people living in close quarters, and lots of people coming and going.

Many people held in the jails are there for just a day or a couple of days, but then there are others who stay for months or even longer. And there are the officers who are coming and going from the community every day. Finally, there are the health workers, volunteers who run programs, and visitors.

Jails are run by individual counties, and with 87 counties in the state, that means a lot of different responses. But in Minnesota, where the state Department of Corrections oversees the jails, the counties are reportedly being told to take precautions.

A number of jails, including Hennepin and Ramsey counties, have already banned outside visitors at the moment.

And for its part, the Ramsey County Correctional Facility is releasing prisoners who are on work-release programs. That means those who already had approval to go to work in the community can stay at home with an ankle bracelet rather than returning to the workhouse. The facility houses less serious offenders who have been sentenced to a year or less. The release, which comes by way of a judge's order, is in effect until April 15 and does not apply to violent offenders.

How clean are the jails typically?

For people who are still in jail or who end up there, there's definitely still the challenge of keeping them clean inside. Some are better than others, but jails as a whole tend not to be pristine. And while some jails are doing ostensibly good things like offering more phone time so people can stay in touch with family even if visits are cut off, it’s also important they also make sure the phones are cleaned regularly.

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said his jail is trying hard to mitigate the concerns. Jail staff are taking people’s temperatures when they are admitted, Fletcher said.

Officers have access to face masks, though Fletcher said most aren’t wearing them yet. He said that his jail also has access to hand sanitizer. Many correctional facilities around the country ban the use of hand sanitizers because they contain alcohol, which some say could be abused.

Fletcher also said that the jail now has access to 100 COVID-19 tests, which are hard to come by even in the outside world.