‘It’s a perfect incubator for COVID-19’: Activists want some inmates released from Spokane Co. Jail

SPOKANE, Wash. — For the last few weeks, doctors and health officials have been stressing the importance of social distancing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But what do you do if that’s not really an option?

The Spokane County Jail has been called a “revolving door for criminals” in the past, which does not really jive with the concept of social distancing. That’s why Spokane activists are calling on city and county leaders to consider releasing some inmates from jail.

“It’s a perfect incubator for COVID-19,” says Angel Tomeo Sam with the Spokane County Justice Task Force and The Bail Project.

She and Sabrina Ryan Helton have seen the way the medical system works in jail, because they have been there before.

“For those in their cells, they’re in there 22-23 hours everyday,” Helton says. “So, it’s very difficult if you have a cell mate or you’re in one of the dorms to practice social distancing at all.”

“In my mind if I see myself back locked up in the county jail or out at Geiger [Correctional Facility], I just can’t see being able to avoid becoming infected,” says Sam. I can’t see myself being able to take care of myself properly.”

The releases Sam, Helton and others are proposing do not apply to everyone. They would like to see inmates over 60 released, as well as those with medical conditions and low bonds.

“We know that there are thousands of people booked into our jail every month and that the average length of stay in our jail is 16 days,” says Helton. “People who have this can be contagious without showing symptoms and even if they are showing symptoms, if they’re at their release date, they’re going to be released. So, they’ll be coming back into the community coming from a place with no medical care, probably no testing.”

They would like to see the jail set a standard of care for those who would stay locked up — similar to what is being implemented on the outside. It seems as though their request is being taken seriously.

City council president Breean Beggs tells 4 News Now leaders at the jail are asking judges to “review the status of individual inmates to see whether holding them or releasing them best protects the community.”

Beggs says the Spokane Municipal Court and Spokane District Court are already doing that and he expects Spokane Superior Court to follow suit shortly.

“During the COVID-19 response it appears that judges are weighing the community benefit of releasing people on a temporary basis versus keeping them in jail and the dangers that poses to the community,” says Beggs.

“In the grand scheme of things, you know, if they’re able to let this many people out either pre-trial or on shorter sentences, because they’re not a threat to the community, what we really need to revisit the idea that they were ever a threat to the community in the first place,” says Helton.

Here is an overview of what Smart Justice Spokane, ACLU Washington, Columbia Legal Services, Disability Rights Washington and The Bail Project are asking of city and county leaders:

  • Immediate releases to prevent uncontrollable outbreak at the Spokane County Jail (SCJ):
  1. Release without bond any individual being held on a low bond
  2. Release without bond any individual over the age of 60 years and anyone with a serious medical condition (heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, immunocompromised)
  3. Enact an immediate prohibition on arresting or jailing individuals for failure to appear, legal financial obligations, or contempt of court matters
  4. Enact an immediate prohibition on the imposition of bail for any but the most serious violent felonies
  5. Immediately quash all warrants in all cases but the most serious violent felonies
  6. Prohibit jailing on drug charges or other low-level offenses
  • For those who cannot or will not be released from custody:
  1. Adopt a standard of care for individuals in SCJ custody that meets or exceeds the recommendations for care in the community
  2. Implement social distancing measures to the extent possible – releasing as many people as possible mitigates risks to the most vulnerable people in custody
  3. End costs/copays for phone and video visitation – regardless of the current public health crisis, the costs associated with phone, email and video visitation in jail facilities is unacceptable
  4. Ensure that every person at SCJ, staff, residents, visitors and volunteers alike has uninhibited access to soap, running water, single-use towels, and alcohol-based hand sanitizer to minimize the spread of COVID-19 throughout facility
  5. Adopt a standard of care for the individuals in SCJ custody that meets or exceeds the recommendations for care in the community
  6. Ensure that people in custody and their families receive updated, comprehensive, timely and thorough information