ACLU of Indiana petitions to release inmates at risk for coronavirus

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An emergency petition submitted Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana is requesting immediate action from the Indiana Supreme Court to stem the spread of COVID-19 in the Indiana Department of Correction and Indiana’s county jails.

The petition filed by ACLU of Indiana legal director Ken Falk and attorneys Stevie Pactor and Gavin Rose contends that individuals held in prisons and jails are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses.

Given the rate of transmission of COVID-19, the spread of the disease at a jail or prison would be quick and potentially deadly, the petition alleges.

Conditions at those facilities, the petition asserts, are “ripe for a widespread outbreak.”

Specifically, the petition contends that social distancing is impossible in Indiana’s jails and prisons due to inmates residing in close quarters and being in close contact with jailers. It also alleges that maintaining proper hygiene is challenging due to limited resources, making it “virtually impossible for persons to wash their hands regularly or to disinfect all frequently touched surfaces.”

Prior to this public health emergency, Indiana county jails were already facing an overcrowding crisis, with 77 percent of Indiana’s jails overcrowded or at capacity in 2018. Overcrowding in these facilities increases the public health risk for everyone,” the ACLU of Indiana said in a statement.

The petition asks the high court to immediately issue emergency steps to identify pretrial detainees and incarcerated people who are at high risk of death because of COVID-19 exposure and may be eligible for release to home detention.

Those action steps include waiving bail requirements for pretrial detainees who do not pose an immediate threat and determining whether a sentence reduction or suspension would be warranted so that convicted persons may shelter at home.

Ensuring the safety of at-risk individuals in Indiana’s jails and prisons is not only a humanitarian necessity, it is a constitutional requirement,” said Falk. “The only way of hoping to stop the deadly spread of COVID-19 is to take these additional steps in the criminal legal system. This will benefit not just people who are incarcerated, but those who work in jails and prisons, and go back and forth to their families and communities every day.”

The petition argued that subjecting individuals detained pretrial to unreasonable risk of harm violates their Fourteenth Amendment rights.

People in jails and prisons have little ability to inform themselves about preventive measures, or to take such measures if they do learn of them,” said Jane Henegar, ACLU of Indiana executive director. “We must drastically reduce the number of people who are arrested and detained pretrial. Locking people up unnecessarily amid this pandemic, especially those who are medically vulnerable, threatens their health and, potentially, their lives.”

Read more about what law enforcement is doing to reduce populations behind bars in the April 1 issue of Indiana Lawyer.


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