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Michael Tyson was the first person to die from COVID-19 in Rikers Island. He was 53 years old with underlying health problems. He sat in jail waiting on a hearing to decide if he violated his parole. He died waiting for state officials, who were deaf to the urgent warnings of public health experts, to decide whether to release him and others like him.
COVID-19 has devastated overcrowded jails that were unprepared for this pandemic. Kansas is next.
Recently, Attorney General William Barr acknowledged the pandemic threat, encouraging prosecutors to “consider not seeking detention” of certain pretrial detainees, including those vulnerable to COVID-19. But in Kansas, federal prosecutors have repeatedly dismissed a COVID-19 outbreak in our jails as mere “speculation,” even as public health experts explain that it is medically inevitable.
Prosecutors insist it is mere “speculation,” even as we witness COVID-19 destroy other jails like an uncontrolled wildfire, taking down those in custody and their custodians in almost equal numbers.
Like Michael Tyson, most of these people are awaiting adjudication. Many are presumed innocent and in custody simply because of their impoverished circumstances. Some are just too poor to pay the bondsman.
Again, we place our poorest brothers and sisters at the greatest risk, pretending they are safer in jail, but really thinking we can better protect ourselves from the virus at their expense.
That is wrong. No one is safer from this pandemic if the jail gates stay locked. This plague spreads nine times faster in jail than in the general public. Over half of those in jail would qualify as “high risk,” like Michael Tyson, meaning that once they are infected, they will become more ill, they will need more medical care — ICU beds and ventilators — and they will be more likely to die.
When the jails cannot manage the outbreak, the sick will be moved to public hospitals, which are already at a breaking point.
Release will protect the general public who rely on our public health care system. It will protect those who must work in the jails, who are often paid obscenely low wages and provided few benefits. It will provide critically needed space within the jail to create distance and provide room for quarantine. And it will protect the person released, taking one more domino out of the chain of contagion.
As public defenders, we hear the terror in our clients’ voices — “They are leaving us in here to die.” Our clients are no long awaiting their day in court.
They are waiting, behind locked doors in overcrowded cells, for the inescapable day when COVID-19 will arrive, like it has in Rikers and Chicago and Oakdale. Inherent in our failure to act is the judgment that they are less worthy. We parse their alleged wrongdoings to weigh against the cost of release. We don’t have time for that. They don’t have time for that. We release people every day. We know how to do this.
Some local officials, notably Sedgwick and Shawnee Counties, have shown us it can be done.
We know Gov. Kelly is working on this issue. Public defenders sent her a detailed, carefully sourced letter pleading for action on March 31.
And we remain hopeful that federal prosecutors will take A.G. Barr’s directive to heart. But this needs to happen now. We have seen the devastating consequence of delay. We are already too late for some. That does not mean we should abandon the rest.
Melody Brannon is the federal public defender for the District of Kansas.