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As COVID-19 spreads, advocates push for release of select inmates

Renee Sims-Wells’ son is in jail at 201 Poplar at a time when multiple local government orders are restricting residents’ movement and encouraging them to practice social distancing to help curb the spread of an invisible viral menace, COVID-19.

On Monday, local judges are – by order of the Tennessee Supreme Court – to submit plans to reduce jail populations. Sims-Wells isn’t banking on the Court’s order. She didn’t even know about it when she talked to The New Tri-State Defender about how the everyday-difficulty of seeing her son has been made even more so by the global pandemic.

The Shelby County Public Defender’s Office is seeking the release of clients detained solely because they can’t afford to post bond.

Phyllis Aluko

Many experts, said Shelby County Chief Public Defender Phyllis Aluko, have explained that occupants of jails will be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, if it is introduced into the facility. Inmates don’t have the freedom to practice social distancing as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

Sims-Wells’ son, Carlton Sims, is awaiting trial on charges that he violated his probation and for non-payment of back child support. Before COVID-19, she visited him whenever she could get a ride and pays for him to call her in the meantime.

The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) has put public visitation on hold at the Jail, Jail East and Juvenile Detention to “further protect detainees” after earlier announced restrictions.

“Attorney visitation will be by video at 201 Poplar and Juvenile Court and non-contact at Jail East. We will update you once public visitation resumes,” reads a Tweet @ShelbyTNSheriff.

The phone provider (GlobalTel) for the jails and the Juvenile Detention Center offers two free, five-minute phone calls per week for each inmate in response to the COVID-19 threat.

Carlton Sim’s bond is $75,000. Sims-Wells said her son’s bondsman told her she would have to pay him $412 every two weeks until her end is paid. She doesn’t have the money.

“It bothers me as a parent and as a U.S. citizen,” she said. “It bothers me because I can’t see him. I don’t feel they are treating folks fair. With them, it’s all about the money.”

Capt. Anthony Bucknerm SCSO spokesman. (Photo: Twitter)

Anthony Buckner, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department, said there were 2,012 inmates in the County Jail and that capacity is 2,800.

And while no detainee had been reported testing positive, on March 23 Buckner announced that SCSO had learned from the Shelby County Health Department that an SCSO employee who works with detainees at the Shelby County Jail (downtown) had tested positive for COVID-19.

“We cannot disclose personal information about this employee due to privacy and confidentiality laws,” Buckner said. “The employee is currently self-quarantined at home, and we are working with the Shelby County Health Department to ensure appropriate follow-up measures are taken for this staff member and detainees.”

The Tennessee Supreme Court order governs judges in all districts of the state.

“Reduction in local jail populations is a critical component in controlling the spread of COVID-19,” Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivens said in a news release. “There are low risk, non-violent offenders who can safely be released and supervised by other means to reduce local jail populations.”

On Tuesday, a petition with multiple plaintiffs was filed by former Davidson County Public Defender Dawn Deaner’s Choosing Justice Initiative. The plaintiffs asked the state Supreme Court to order the release of select prisoners to help combat the virus’ spread.

Shelby County District Atty. Amy Weirich details moves her office is making in response to COVID-19. (YouTube.com)

Meanwhile, Shelby County District Atty. Gen. Amy Weirich – via a YouTube video – said her office is sending out hundreds of letters to defendants alerting them that prosecutors have reviewed their cases and are dismissing them..

“We’re looking every day for people we can safely and responsibly release back into the community,” she said.

Weirich said that typically people jailed at 201 Poplar are charged with serious, violent crimes and have records that go back years. She has asked prosecutors to go over all of their cases to see if there are ways to reduce the jail population.

Some cases may be fast tracked so that the defendant is in jail for a shorter period before court, she said.

Josh Spickler, Just City executive director (Photo: WKNO YouTube)

Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City Memphis, said his organization is part of the plaintiffs’ group that filed the petition with the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“The question for me is to what extent they will go to reduce the jail population, and how will they do it,” Spickler said on Friday.

Aluko said the state Supreme Court’s order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic essentially put cases for clients who are out of custody on hold.

“Trials are on hold even for in-custody clients,” she said. “Thus, we don’t know when our clients, who can’t post money bail, will be afforded their day in court. That makes our current bail initiative extremely important. There are fairer ways to protect our community than locking up every accused person who is too poor to post bond.”

A person who loses a year of his or her life only to be found not guilty at trial “can’t be adequately compensated for the lost time and opportunities,” Aluko said.

“Jailers, other employees and visitors cycle in and out of the facility, thereby, increasing the risk for exposure,” she said. “We’ve been told that a person who shows no symptoms can still transfer the virus to others. Thus, it is highly likely that someone who is asymptomatic will unknowingly introduce the virus into the facility.

“Metaphorically speaking, I think we’re watching what amounts to a slower moving fire,” she said. “We see it coming and have some time to move people out of the way so they have a better chance to not be burned. That’s what our bail initiative is trying to do.”

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