The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office began filing motions last week seeking the immediate release of all inmates being held pretrial in county jails who are considered more susceptible to catching coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
“We are taking action to protect older adults and those with compromised immune systems who are extremely vulnerable right now,” said S.F. Public Defender Mano Raju. “People who are incarcerated in jail are already exposed to an unsafe environment. The cramped and unsanitary conditions in jail put the older or immunocompromised population at a much greater risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus.”
— Mano Raju (@ManoRajuPD) March 10, 2020
Raju has asked police to stop issuing citations for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies “unless there is a clear and present danger of imminent harm.” He said he is committed to working with S.F. District Attorney Chesa Boudin and law enforcement “to identify safe alternatives for pretrial detention.”
“We are asking that the Sheriff, and others with the power to release people, act with similar urgency.”
In addition, Raju called for the early release of incarcerated persons who have less than six months left to serve.
“These are cases where the court has already decided that it’s safe to release someone into the community, and will be doing so in the very near future,” he said. “This will help reduce the population on the inside, allowing for recommended distance between individuals during this public health crisis.”
There have been no confirmed cases within S.F. County’s jail system, which houses more than 1200 inmates.
According to the S.F. Department of Public Health, 40 individuals in the county have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Monday morning. Officials warn that people 60 years old and older, pregnant women, along with folks who have certain chronic severe medical conditions, are at a higher risk of serious illness. Those with heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, and weakened immune systems due to afflictions such as HIV or cancer are the most vulnerable, health officials say. COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person, between people in close contact with one another through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person sneezes or coughs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some healthcare officials have voiced concern that jails and prisons could become “incubators” for the virus to spread.
In a letter to several public officials that included D.A. Boudin, Raju wrote: “The constant flow of both staff and detainees in and out of the jails – where large numbers of people are housed in close proximity – means that a powerful virus like COVID-19 can take over quickly and easily.”
Last week, “The Appeal” reported that “Boudin directed his prosecutors not to oppose motions to release pretrial detainees facing misdemeanor charges or drug-related felony charges if the person is deemed to pose no threat to public safety.”
According to the San Francisco Examiner, “Boudin said his office is considering new policies to help expedite release for some people and reduce the need for others to come to court in light of the outbreak.” COVID-19 could be a factor prosecutors consider when determining whether a person is recommended for release at their arraignment, The Examiner reported.
S.F. Sheriff Paul Miyamoto assured Raju that the jails have a partnership with the county health department, and both agencies are monitoring the most vulnerable detainees to ensure their safety. Late last week, he suspended all visits to county jails to protect inmates and staff. Incarcerated individuals will have non-contact access to legal counsel.
In abundance of caution, @SheriffSF suspends jail visiting. No known cases of coronavirus in SF jails per @SF_DPH. Decision mirrors community public health measures. Sheriff will review operations and make adjustments for future visiting. https://t.co/PXEUrYL2M4
— SF Sheriff's Office (@SheriffSF) March 13, 2020
Meanwhile, two jail inmates in nearby Santa Clara County have been placed in medical isolation after they reportedly met with a defense attorney who has since tested positive for the virus. Sheriff Laurie Smith confirmed the quarantine on Friday, adding that the exposed detainees had shown “absolutely no symptoms” of infection.
Also on Friday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced a 30-day suspension of most legal visits and all social visits to mitigate COVID-19 transmission. The agency will allow for additional inmate telephone conversations to maintain social ties. BOP officials said they have been planning for coronavirus since January.
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter@JeffreyCawood.