COVID BEHIND BARS, PART 2: EARLY RELEASE IS UP TO GOVERNOR

Part 2

Concern is growing over whether or not Alabama’s jails and prisons are prepared for the battle against COVID-19. The Alabama Department of Corrections says at least a dozen prisoners have tested positive for the virus, along with at least 60 employees.

WVUA 23 News is part of a joint COVID-19 team with Alabama Public Radio and the University of Alabama’s Center for Public Television. As part of that effort, we’re taking a look at what’s needed from state lawmakers to make early release and alternative detention happen to help stop COVID-19’s spread.

This is Part 2 in a three-part series.


Alabama state Sen. Cam Ward of Alabaster said prisoners are being tested for COVID-19 just like the general population.

“They’re going in like most local officials are, the local governments,” Ward said. “They’re testing them for fever and symptoms. If they have symptoms, they’re putting them in isolation.”

Ward has been touting the new rules and regulations the state’s jail and prison systems have implemented to keep coronavirus from spreading inside detention centers.

“They’re also doing wellness check-ups every day on inmates and officers,” Ward said. “If there’s any sign of a fever in an officer, they’re required to go home.”

But prison advocates said temperature checks and cleaning only go so far.

When you’re in a dense population that’s unable to social distance like a jail or prison, the probability that the infection rate is going to be high is not surprising,” said University of Alabama Professor of Law Jenny Carroll.

Carroll is working with a University of Alabama colleague and a group of students to try and get some inmates released during the coronavirus pandemic.

They’re all asking Gov. Kay Ivey to consider alternative detention and early release for nonviolent inmates. That list also include elderly prisoners who are vulnerable to COVID-19. But that’s something Ward said is impossible.

“You would have to change the law,” Ward said. “(Ivey) doesn’t have the power to pardon or parole anyone out of prisons anymore. That was removed in the late 1990s. You’d have to change the law.”

Carroll said she acknowledges what she’s asking Ivey to do is unprecedented, but so is the coronavirus outbreak. She helped write a letter to Ivey and other state leaders laying out a plan on how to it all work. The proposal includes early release and alternative detention.

There’s actually a pretty clear pathway under which a governor can use executive power to remove inmates from detention and place them in safe locations in order to stop the spread of an epidemic,” Carroll said.

Carroll points to part of the Alabama Code which states “convicts can be removed to a safe place within the state during any epidemic and infectious or contagious disease… to insure the safekeeping of the convicts.”

The professor said Ivey could put inmates on home arrest with electronic monitoring or place them in other facilities that are vacant because of the outbreak.

Ward said it’s ultimately up to Ivey on how to handle detention centers during the coronavirus outbreak.

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