Barron: A Jail Sentence Shouldn’t Be a Death Sentence

 

As of July 6, Weber County Jail has 114 active COVID-19 cases and nearly a third of the inmates jailed in Washington County tested positive for the virus. In contrast, Utah’s prisons, which have almost 1,000 more inmates than the jail system, have only 38 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Fears of contracting the virus are running high among the inmate populations in both facilities as the jails remain too crowded to properly isolate those infected or exposed. “We’re just kind of… sitting ducks until we get sick,” one Washington County inmate told a reporter. “Does somebody have to die before [something is done]?” Sadly, this inmate’s concerns are not unique, COVID-19 is poised to devastate incarcerated populations all over the country, just like the Spanish Flu in 1918. To protect the community and inmates, non-violent offenders should be released, remaining inmates should have access to basic care and additional resources should be dedicated to finding long-term solutions to protect inmates from COVID-19.

When discussing the conditions within Weber County Jail, Bronson Dean, an inmate, wrote, “It’s simply not possible to practice social distancing in here… we eat, sleep and live in quarters with each other at all times.” While holding community members accountable for lawless behavior is important, local officials overseeing facilities in Weber and Washington need to take action to ensure a jail sentence does not become a death sentence. Weber and Washington county attorneys need to release non-violent offenders from jail on ankle monitors to make social distancing possible and prevent the continued spread of COVID-19 in these jails. Since the majority of jail inmates are non-violent offenders, this would decrease the jail population significantly, improving social distancing conditions within these facilities. Additionally, these individuals will be monitored during their release which can ensure that they quarantine for at least 14 days to prevent community spread of the virus.

Taylor Hobbs, one of the first inmates in Weber County Jail to contract the virus, worked in the jail kitchen for two weeks after he began experiencing symptoms because he was worried he would lose his job if he missed his shifts. Inmates rely on their low-paying jobs within the jail to afford medical care and personal hygiene products, as most families with an incarcerated relative are already financially unable to meet their family’s basic needs. Jail leadership needs to make it clear that no sick inmate will be dismissed from their job for missing shifts to prevent inmates from hiding symptoms. Additionally, medical care and personal hygiene products should be provided to inmates at no cost for at least the duration of the pandemic. In Weber County, inmates are currently charged $15 to see a doctor. Inmates can only make between 40 cents to $1.75 an hour in Utah jails, meaning that sick inmates would have to work at least 8 hours to afford a single visit.

While reducing the inmate population and ensuring remaining inmates have access to medical care and personal hygiene products will protect current inmates, resources need to be invested in long-term solutions that will continue to keep inmates safe as the pandemic continues. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in Weber, northern Utah jail populations were falling as only violent offenders were jailed to protect inmates from the virus. To keep the jail populations low, preventing future outbreaks and allowing for social distancing guidelines to be followed, lawmakers need to revisit the idea of which crimes warrant an arrest instead of a citation. Resources should also be dedicated to reopening Daggett County Jail — which closed in 2017 but remains in operational — to house inmate overflow to allow jails to follow social distancing guidelines.

Cook County Jail in Illinois once had “one of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 in a congregate setting,” but Sheriff Tom Dart crushed the curve by increasing inmates’ access to testing and opening unused buildings. Leaders responsible for the well-being of inmates in Washington and Weber county jails need to follow Dart’s example of action to save Utahns’ lives. Community members can encourage this action. Consider contacting the Weber and Washington county attorney’s office to petition the release of non-violent inmates. Reaching out to the sheriffs of Weber and Washington counties to demand inmates have free access to medical care and personal hygiene products. Or emailing state representatives to ensure legislative action is taken and funds are allocated to provide long-term solutions to COVID-19 for incarcerated Utahns. Together, we can ensure jail sentences do not become death sentences in Utah.

 

m.barron@dailyutahchronicle.com

@readbarron

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