“We are very ill-prepared for a biological event like this”: Prosecutors, sheriffs stress need to prevent COVID-19 in jails

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Mississippi law enforcement officials are looking for ways to keep COVID-19 out of jails.

District Attorney Daniella Shorter is keenly aware that her rural constituents will face greater barriers than their urban counterparts when it comes to accessing care for COVID-19.

That includes the few dozen people locked up in the jails within her southwest Mississippi jurisdiction, comprised of Claiborne, Copiah and Jefferson counties, Shorter said.

“It gets to be complicated because we already have limited medical professionals as it is. When you throw in a (jail) population or a nursing home with needs to access those health professionals that we have, then we’re already at a disadvantage because there’s barely enough,” said Shorter, who was elected as the district’s top prosecutor last fall.

Shorter is one of three elected Mississippi prosecutors who signed onto a letter by the group Fair and Just Prosecution last week, calling for their counterparts across the country to work with public health officials and other community leaders to reduce jail and prison populations and take other measures to protect incarcerated individuals from the coronavirus. Shorter has spoken to all three sheriffs in her district, who are adjusting to the pandemic and limiting person-to-person contact by issuing citations instead of making misdemeanor arrests, and not jailing people for non-violent offenses, she said.

As reported cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in Mississippi, some law enforcement agencies are adjusting practices, limiting contact with the public and wiping down patrol cars. One key area of concern: jails, often potential hotbeds for infectious disease.

Multiple cases of the coronavirus, a respiratory illness that predominantly spreads through droplets, have already been reported among prisoners and jailers in U.S. correctional facilities. Advocates have called on local governments across the country to release people, especially those who can’t afford cash bail, the elderly and other  vulnerable inmates, as a humane effort to prevent transmission of the highly contagious disease.

In Mississippi, conversations around how to prevent and limit the spread of COVID-19 in jails have begun both in more populated jurisdictions, like Hinds and Rankin counties, and in more rural ones as well. Some of those precautions include canceling visitation and monitoring inmates for symptoms, sheriffs said in interviews.

The Mississippi Sheriffs’ Association is recommending its members work with district attorneys and local judges to re-evaluate their jail rosters to see if any inmates can be released, as well providing guidance on how to screen jail staff and inmates for COVID-19, said Will Allen, the group’s attorney.

“Our position is, the fewer people we have in jail anytime is a good thing for us,” Allen said, adding that he had talked to several sheriffs who have released 10-15 people from custody.

Jones County Sheriff Joe Berlin told Mississippi Today last week that he had spoken to local justice court judges and was looking into releasing people who are working off fines and fees in his jail.

Still, Gov. Tate Reeves indicated at a news conference Tuesday that the state had no current plans to release people in the criminal justice system. Mississippi has the second-highest rate of jail admissions per capita, according a 2019 report by the Prison Policy Initiative.

New data released by the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi last week shows that more than 5,200 people were incarcerated in county jails across the state as of December 2019. The vast majority of those are too poor to make bail while awaiting a criminal trial, said Cliff Johnson, the center’s director in Mississippi.

“The thousands of Mississippians locked up in our local jails find themselves sharing common areas, bunk beds, toilets, sinks, and showers with dozens of different people each day,” Johnson said in a statement. “The Mississippi sheriffs will be the first to tell you that they do not have the expertise or resources to deal with a pandemic like COVID-19. Our county jails have few, if any, full-time licensed medical providers, no proper isolation rooms, and woefully inadequate equipment and training specific to dealing with infectious diseases.”

Other sheriffs have emphasized that COVID-19 won’t stop them from enforcing the law. In Rankin County, the sheriff’s office is wiping down doorknobs hourly and pre-screening anyone booked into the jail before they join the 450 or so people already detained there, and has obtained 64,400 out-of-date military surplus N-95 masks, said Undersheriff Raymond Duke: “We have no choice but to operate 24/7, regardless of what’s going on.”

“We are very ill-prepared for a biological event like this,” Duke added. “But it’s not just us. It’s all agencies around here.”

District Attorney Scott Colom in Northern Mississippi, who also signed the Fair and Just Prosecution letter, said he too has recommended law enforcement in his district to issue court summons for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies, instead of risking exposure to jail detainees and personnel.

Some agencies that might be internally changing policies on limiting arrests or bookings might not publicize those changes, Colom said.

“These law enforcement agencies have to be careful about what they release publicly,” Colom said. “You don’t want to send the wrong signal about what’s going to be tolerated.”