Freedom from Cages is a Public Health Issue: Legal Experts, Healthcare Professionals, and Local Activists Urge Action to Immediately Decrease Alachua Jail Population In Order to Save Lives Amid COVID-19 Crisis.
We, the undersigned organizations and Commissioners, urge the State Attorney’s Office, the Eighth Judicial Circuit Judges, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, and law enforcement across Alachua County to significantly reduce the incarcerated population.
Mass incarceration is a public health crisis, especially at this time. As of Monday March 23rd, there were 692 people caged in Alachua County Jail. The most recent data from FDOC claims that an estimated 67.5% of inmates in Alachua County Jail are awaiting trial and are thus presumed innocent. The number of people that Alachua County holds for ICE is uncertain, but we know that the number of people turned over to ICE has drastically increased in the last year. Medical experts state that it is not a question of if, but when, COVID-19 will enter jails and prisons. When it enters, the virus is likely to infect everyone inside, including jail employees. As a result, Marc Stern, former Assistant Secretary for Health Services for the Washington State Department of Corrections, proposed that prisons and jails consider releasing people to manage the COVID-19 outbreak.
During this pandemic, incarcerated people are at increased risk of exposure and death. The unsanitary and dangerous living conditions in our jails make them a petri dish for viral infection, and neither the jails nor the county hospitals have the capacity to handle such a large outbreak. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends physical distancing, which is impossible for people who lack freedom of movement due to their incarceration. People routinely share jail cells with twenty to seventy people in cramped quarters. The Department of Corrections does not give people enough food, and as a result, people often share commissary items to fill their stomachs. Medical care is sparse and inadequate, heightening the chance of viral outbreaks and an inadequate subsequent medical response.
This harm is multiplied by the fact that the criminal legal system in the Eighth Circuit preys on people who are already among the most vulnerable members of our community. It is well-documented that criminalization in Alachua dramatically and disproportionately impacts Black people, immigrants, survivors of assault, people with substance use and mental health disorders, and those who are houseless and low-income of all ages, including the elderly. In a system already failing to apply the law fairly and equally, arresting and incarcerating people while adding the risk of viral infection and inadequate care is cruel and unusual punishment. This practice puts thousands of people at risk of infection, including jail workers, legal workers, and incarcerated people.
Conditions have already worsened for people in jail. On March 16, Alachua County announced the elimination of visits from loved ones, which, given the high price of phone calls, are often the only form of communication that people have with loved ones on the outside. Studies show that such restrictions have adverse effects. On March 16, the Eighth Circuit Judicial Court started limiting access and restricting court proceedings. This rule specifically impacts people in our jails who are awaiting trial, which effectively may be their only hope of release. Other common responses include lockdowns and placing people in solitary confinement, yet, we know that isolation only further endangers people.
We have a moral calling to our community, which includes people behind jail walls, in the midst of this pandemic. Continued incarceration will be a death sentence. We must stand with the most vulnerable and take the following steps:
- Release all people in jail who are incarcerated pretrial. More than 67% of people in Alachua County Jail are currently awaiting trial and have not been sentenced. It is a moral imperative that we expedite that process and release every single person caged pretrial immediately. This can be done by reviewing and removing conditions that keep people incarcerated, including unpaid money bail, technical probation violations, and child support “holds.” It may also involve new release mechanisms, like instating “rocket dockets” that prioritize releasing as many people as possible.
- Release all people in jail who have fewer than 180 days of their sentence remaining. Many of the people currently serving sentences in Alachua County Jail are there for misdemeanor offenses. Those who are nearing completion of their sentence must be released to avoid risk of infection.
- Release our most at-risk prisoners. This includes releasing elderly and immunocompromised inmates as well as minors from jails, prisons, and detention centers.
- Stop detaining people for ICE and put an end to ICE raids. In 2019, the number of people that Alachua County Sheriff’s Office turned over to ICE more than quadrupled from the year before. These prolonged holds after an individual has been cleared to return to our community present not only a constitutional problem, but an increasing public health risk. Enforcement of detention should be suspended immediately.
- Issue a moratorium on new bookings and carceral sentences. People who would be arrested for violations of local ordinances and misdemeanors should be issued Notices to Appear by police officers in lieu of arrest to limit their exposure to the jail system. People who would be arrested for bondable felony offenses should be released on their own recognizance or to the custody of Pretrial Services by judges at bond hearings and on motions to modify bail.
- Loosen probation and monitored release restrictions. Every person needs unfettered access to medical care and the ability to leave their homes to care for their families and community members in need. People with restrictive house arrest conditions are unable to do this because phone lines are often busy, making it impossible to quickly obtain permission to leave without violating the terms of their release. All people on monitored release must be moved to “roaming” status. Alternatively, violations of house arrest should be forgiven.
- People who remain incarcerated must be treated with the dignity they deserve. They must be able to speak freely to their loved ones. This necessitates free telephone calls and the implementation of video visitations while in-person visitations are restricted. Corporations should not be profiting off of isolation during this pandemic. In addition, it requires allowing people who have been barred from making telephone calls and receiving commissary as a disciplinary sanction to regain access to those lifelines. Folks inside must also have access to adequate medical care, affordable supplies, safe food, and hygienic products.
- Create and expand emergency housing for those returning to the community after incarceration and connect them to healthcare providers as needed. Through FY 2019-2020, it will cost Alachua County taxpayers $97,000 per day to maintain the Alachua County Jail. Those resources could be used for much more urgent purposes than keeping people incarcerated. Given the CDC’s recommendations regarding physical distancing, it is a moral imperative for our County to decarcerate and use that money to provide emergency housing to people released from jail who need it. This could include the possibility of using AirBnB or hotel vouchers for those without a place to live, with priority granted to those with preexisting conditions and the elderly.
Alachua County has a public health mandate to reduce our jail population. Doing so will protect the lives of thousands of people who are imprisoned in Alachua, while safeguarding the health of all people in Alachua County.
City Commissioner David Arreola
City Commissioner Gail Johnson
City Commissioner-Elect Reina Saco
City Commissioner Helen Warren
Goddsville Dream Defenders
National Lawyers Guild Gainesville
Florida Legal Services, Inc.
Legal Empowerment & Advocacy Hub
Human Rights Coalition of Alachua County
Alachua County Labor Coalition
Fight Toxic Prisons
Gainesville Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee
Gainesville Veterans for Peace
Gainesville Action for Environmental Justice
Gainesville Socialist Alternative
Florida Immigrant Coalition
Students for Justice in Palestine
Farmworkers Association of Florida
Madres Sin Fronteras
Baker Interfaith Friends
Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice
Emmanuel Mennonite Church