To prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the Monroe County Jail, the county began releasing some nonviolent inmates who are still going through the court system or whose sentences will end soon.
Monroe County prosecutor Erika Oliphant said she looks at the alleged crime committed, how much time is left in a sentence and the inmate’s health. It’s unclear how many people have been released relating to COVID-19 because there is a constant change in inmates. Some are in jail indefinitely, for a few days or until their trial begins. However, Oliphant estimates the amount of inmates has gone from 250-280 inmates down to 160-180.
“We're facing this pandemic,” Oliphant said. “We want to try to keep the jail numbers as low as possible.”
Oliphant said Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mary Ellen Diekhoff is the only person with the final say on which inmates can be released. Oliphant and other lawyers can suggest people for early release.
Monroe County Jail Commander Sam Crowe said he’s been preparing for the coronavirus for weeks. The jail has implemented an intake form, asking inmates if they have any symptoms and if so, which. Beforethe coronavirus was declared a pandemic, staff sanitized the jail between shifts, but now it’s more frequent. Staff wipes down frequently touched areas such as door handles, railings and phone receivers.
The jail also has two isolation blocks where inmates who can’t get out on bond or be released immediately can shelter, Crowe said. Typically, inmates only get access to soap if they can pay for it. Now, the jail is giving every inmate a bar of soap for free.
However, Oliphant said she wanted to stress that people can still go to jail. She said she’s concerned about an increase in domestic violence and burglaries, and people might think there won’t be consequences.
“Violence and taking advantage of your neighbors during this time is still not going to be tolerated,” she said. “Jail is still an option.”
Inmates can still have visitation time remotely, Crowe said. Anyone who has access to a smartphone or personal computer can pay 15 cents per minute to talk to inmates. Inmates have 60 minutes of free talk time.
Crowe said most of the activities inmates no longer have access to are considered “privileges,” such as classes taught by community organizations and having visitors come to the facility. However, they still get recreation time.
Crowe said he thinks the jail is actually one of the safest places to be right now because of how closed off it is.
Vauhxx Booker, local activist and Bloomington Human Rights commissioner, said he’s been connected through his work to people who are part of the legal system or who have been through it. He said he’s glad the jail is releasing inmates because it could easily become a hotspot.
“We have to be concerned just as much about the health of folks who are incarcerated,” Booker said.
Not all jail inmates are people who’ve been convicted of crimes, Booker said. A large population of them are pretrial inmates, who are waiting for their trials to prove them innocent or guilty. About two people are serving their sentences, and some are people who have violated their parole.
“We have this mindset of if someone is in jail, they’ve done something to be deserving of jail,” Booker said.