Targeted releases should be part of Alabama corrections system’s response to COVID-19 pandemic

State and local governments are responding in a variety of ways to the emergent coronavirus pandemic in Alabama. But that response thus far has fallen short where incarcerated people are concerned.

The Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) has more than 27,500 people in custody right now. (For context, that’s more people than live in Anniston, Homewood or Northport.) Thousands more sit in county and municipal jails. And the conditions in which most of them live are wretched.

Alabama’s correctional institutions are extremely understaffed and dangerously overcrowded. And even after the U.S. Department of Justice warned the state last year about the system’s shortcomings, some of those problems are getting worse.

Quick, targeted releases would lessen harm and save lives

Temporarily halting visitation, as the DOC is doing, is one step to slowing the spread of infections in Alabama’s corrections system. But reducing the overcrowding in jails and prisons is also vital to limiting COVID-19 deaths. Here are a few ways state and local officials could do that:

  • The DOC should expand medical furlough for prisoners. Jails also should release nonviolent offenders. Medical furlough allows prisoners with medical conditions, including diseases that result from aging, to be released to treat those diseases.
  • Officials should allow high-risk incarcerated seniors to go home to the greatest extent reasonable under the law. That would reduce the danger of infection and make a pandemic more manageable in prisons. People over age 60 and people with some ailments correlated with aging, like cardiovascular disease, are at greater risk of serious illness if infected.
  • Local jails should keep their cells as empty as possible. All incarcerated people with no history of violence and no charges pending for violent crimes should be released without requiring money bail. And people arrested for nonviolent crimes should be released on their own recognizance or with reasonable monitoring conditions. Slowing the coronavirus outbreak is more important than keeping people who aren’t accused of violent crimes locked up. Circuit Judge Ben Fuller’s order last week for jails in Autauga, Chilton and Elmore counties to release anyone with a bond of $5,000 or less was a good step in that direction.

Weak, slow responses would mean worse outbreaks and more deaths

The COVID-19 pandemic layers a public health crisis on top of the state’s prison crisis. And the DOC’s response so far has unfortunately been too timid to stop the rapid spread of the virus if it reaches prisons. Many city and county jails also haven’t laid out detailed policies to address COVID-19.

The DOC has issued a perfunctory statement that it is following CDC recommendations. But the CDC recommendations aren’t focused on jails or prisons. And they don’t address inmate holding practices or recommend circumstances for release. The DOC is attempting to reduce the number of person-to-person contacts by stopping work release and suspending in-person legal visits. But these steps alone are unlikely to do enough to protect people who are in custody or who work at the facilities.

Alabama is running short on time to get this response right. An employee at an unnamed state prison already has tested positive for COVID-19, the DOC announced last week. A widespread outbreak could tear quickly through Alabama’s overcrowded prisons and jails, jeopardizing hundreds or thousands of lives. State and local leaders must take quick, meaningful action right now to reduce the risk of that nightmarish scenario.