Advocates across the country are raising concerns about the potential that a COVID-19 outbreak could hit a jail or prison and spill over into the general public and the broader healthcare system. Now some groups are calling on Iowa to follow steps taken by other states to drastically reduce the number of people behind bars in order to slow the spread of the virus.
The population of incarcerated Americans has ballooned in recent generations as officials have argued locking up more offenders for longer sentences would keep communities safer. But the threat posed by the novel coronavirus is spurring some to say American communities will be safer if inmates are now released.
To try to slow the spread of COVID-19, correctional facilities across the country are now releasing scores of inmates early, particularly those who are elderly or have underlying health conditions, making them even more vulnerable to the respiratory disease.
The ACLU of Iowa and Quad Cities Interfaith are calling on the state to do the same, in order to protect the health of incarcerated individuals, facility staff, law enforcement officers and the broader public.
“Prisons and jails are the perfect storm for the spread of this disease. You have a lot of people usually jammed into close quarters, there’s no option for social distancing,” said Veronica Fowler, communications director for the ACLU of Iowa. “We are asking court officials, law enforcement, the Department of Corrections to please as soon as possible, take some rapid measures to prevent this.”
In line with steps taken in California, Illinois, Alabama, and North Carolina, the group is urging state and local leaders to approve the early release of incarcerated Iowans who are nearing the end of their sentence, as well as Iowans held in county jails ahead of their trials because they cannot afford to pay bail.
According to a 2015 analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice, some 74 percent of Iowans held in county jails have not yet been convicted of a crime, either because they cannot afford their bail or have been denied pretrial release.
Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office did not respond to requests for comment on what efforts she may be considering or recommending to insulate the state’s jails and prisons from the virus.
The state Department of Corrections has taken steps to slow the spread of COVID-19, by suspending all visits and volunteer activities, and has developed a “screening protocol” for Iowans being transferred from a jail into a prison. DOC spokesman Cord Overton says the department is also following CDC guidance to screen anyone entering a facility.
“The safety of our staff and those under our supervision is paramount to this department. The department has a robust policy and plans in place related to pandemic viruses,” Overton said in an email. “If or when a case is confirmed at an institution, quarantine protocols would be initiated immediately, and those infected would begin treatment for illness, similar to flu outbreak protocols.”
The department did not respond to a request for further details on its virus response plan, such as what efforts could be made to protect vulnerable people within the facilities.
Some advocates worry the risk of an outbreak behind bars is still too great. Public health officials are urging all Americans to practice social distancing, to avoid crowded places and to wash their hands repeatedly.
These steps are urgently recommended in order to “flatten the curve” of increases in COVID-19 cases, that is, to slow the spread of the disease and prevent a surge of patients that could overwhelm hospitals and clinics and hamstring healthcare providers’ ability to provide critical care.
Social distancing may be even more difficult for incarcerated people to do, especially in crowded facilities. As of Thursday, the state’s prisons are operating at nearly 23 percent over capacity.
“I can’t imagine what it could do to a prison population,” said Ryan Stevenson, a political organizer and a formerly incarcerated Iowan. “Our prisons are already understaffed, so something of this magnitude would be very detrimental.”
The ACLU of Iowa is also calling on local law enforcement officers to change their operations so that fewer Iowans are sent to jails and prisons during this time, namely by issuing citations or warnings instead of arresting individuals, particularly for non-violent or “victimless” crimes.
“We are doing our best to keep the citizens of Iowa safe as well as all our employees,” said Lt. Chad Cribb, the president of the Iowa State Sheriff’s and Deputies Association.
Cribb said Iowa’s sheriffs are following guidelines from the state health department and the National Sheriff’s Association, but said some steps recommended by the ACLU would need action from the Iowa Supreme Court in order to be implemented.
“We’re very conscious of the fact that if the virus were to get into a particular jail that it could spread very quickly,” said State Court Administrator Todd Nuccio. “We want to do what we can to…social distancing and space people out. But again we also have a equal concern about keeping the community safe.”
Nuccio says the court system will be taking a “more serious look” at pretrial diversion options, both for new cases and for Iowans already being held in jail because they couldn’t post bond.
“We’ll be looking at things like bond review, use of ankle bracelets, other things that we think we can employ to safely release people back into the community and not have them housed at a particular jail facility,” Nuccio said.
The ACLU’s Fowler is urging officials across the state’s criminal justice and judicial systems to consider drastic changes to take action quickly.
“The goal is to keep our communities safe,” Fowler said. “It is the responsible thing to do.”