By Haley Carney | The StatehouseFile.com
April 16, 2020
INDIANAPOLIS—Indiana’s top health official said Thursday that 80 inmates at the Westfield Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19 and are being isolated from the rest of the prison population.
Dr. Kristina Box, commissioner of the Indiana State Department of Health, said the close living environment is ripe for the rapid transmission of the novel coronavirus, which claimed the life of one 70-year-old inmate earlier in the week. She was providing her daily COVID-19 update at Gov. Eric Holcomb’s virtual press briefing.
Earlier in the week, a group of pastors and civic leaders urged state officials to take action to protect the health and safety of jail and prison inmates who might be at risk because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Faith in Indiana, formerly IndyCAN!, conducted an online prayer vigil this week in support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and to pray for current prisoners who may be at greater risk of contracting the highly contagious novel coronavirus while behind bars. Faith in Indiana is a religious group who collectively act for racial and economic justice.
“We [are praying] for our families and neighbors in jails, prisons and detention centers to be given quick release who do not pose a demonstrable, imminent threat of bodily harm to others,” members of the group said in a statement.
During the online prayer vigil, pastors prayed and family members spoke of their personal experience with how this has affected their loved ones.
Registered nurse Amanda Boyd was among the speakers in the group Zoom chat. She said she has two uncles currently incarcerated for nonviolent reasons and worries about her family’s health during this time.
“They are nonviolent and not a risk,” she said. “Prisons cannot realistically practice social distancing. Some of these prisons are not kept clean as it is and this poses a risk to my family.”
At the beginning of April, Holcomb, Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, and Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush issued a letter giving local officials the authority to release some low-risk offenders because of the risk posed by the pandemic.
But many jurisdictions have declined to release inmates and Holcomb has said he will not force the issue.
The state Supreme Court also rejected a petition filed by the ACLU to release some offenders.
The ACLU, in the petition, asked the high court to take immediate action in issuing emergency steps to identify people who are incarcerated or soon will be and find the ones who are considered high risk due to COVID-19. They wanted them to be eligible for release to home detention or house arrest.
Current law requires local prosecutors to approve sentence modification petitions filed in cases where plea agreements have already been established. If changed, Judges could make the decisions to release convicted prisoners into the public without the approval of prosecutors.
The ACLU made the argument that people who are incarcerated could not possibly practice the required six feet social distancing precautions and are often already in poor health.
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. Although the ACLU said some Indiana counties have taken steps to reduce their jail population amid this pandemic, statewide action is critical.
“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 Ken Falk, legal director at the ACLU of Indiana. “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 ACLU also said that subjecting people who are detained pretrial to “unreasonable risk of harm” violates their Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Attorney General Curtis Hill argued against the petition to release the inmates amid the coronavirus in a filed with the court.
“The ACLU’s unprecedented request for the court to assume the power to manage prisons and jails is constitutionally and procedurally improper,” Hill said in a statement. “Administration of the Indiana Department of Correction and Indiana’s prisons belongs in the executive branch of state government.”
Haley Carney is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.
Photo courtesy Flickr user Asedefe