Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday issued an executive order to help reduce a backlog of state inmates in county jails as the coronavirus outbreak continues in Alabama.
“Because the conditions of the jails inherently heighten the possibility of COVID-19 transmission, I find that it would promote the safety and protection of the civilian population to allow local officials to reduce the number of local inmates being held in county jails in a way that does not jeopardize public safety,” the order said.
The order also “cut red tape” to allow quick expansion of medical facilitates and speed the process for out-of-state and retired doctors to work in Alabama.
Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said he expected the order to affect about 300 inmates.
Ivey ordered the release of any inmates who had been in county jails for alleged probation and parole violations for 20 days or more and had not gotten a hearing.
Existing law allows sheriffs to release accused parole violators under those circumstances. Ivey’s order mostly restates that law, though it says they “shall” be released, says “20 days” instead of “20 business days,” and excludes probation or parole violators incarcerated on new criminal charges.
Ivey’s order also extends time served in city or county jails to those facing technical parole or probation violations requiring 45 days incarceration in state prisons, known as a dunk.
Brasfield said the latter measure “addresses the dunks issue as well as humanly possible.”
The governor’s order comes amid an Alabama Department of Corrections moratorium on accepting new prisoners, barring any serious medical or mental health issues that would require ADOC care.
That has resulted in more than 2,000 state inmates being kept in county jails, awaiting transportation, according to the county commission association.
The backlog raised concerns about the health and safety of inmates and law enforcement in county jails. Many jails in smaller counties lack health care facilities to address an outbreak, should one occur.
The order also comes on the heels of more than two dozen Alabama law professors and former law enforcement officers’ urging Ivey earlier this week to reduce the number of inmates in Alabama prisons, warning that a COVID-19 outbreak in the state’s correctional facilities could create a “public health catastrophe.”
In a letter to Ivey on Monday, they urged her to use her emergency powers to restart parole hearings with proper health precautions in place and focus on the release of prisoners aged 50 or older and those with compromised immune systems.
“Alabama’s prisons are poised to exacerbate the already disastrous coronavirus outbreak,” the letter said. “Prisons are not islands; if an outbreak starts among the prisoners, it will spread to correctional officers and other staff, who will take the virus home to their families and communities.”
Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for Ivey, wrote in a statement on Tuesday that Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn had been engaged in addressing the outbreak. The statement said the outbreak underlines the need to reduce crowding and improve the current facilities.
Heather Elliott, a law professor at the University of Alabama who led the effort, said in a phone interview Tuesday that the letter was about inmates and “the safety of correctional officers, their families, their communities and the rest of us in doing what needs to be done to address this pandemic.”
“If you think about the way the virus pandemic is expanding, places where people are forced to be in close proximity are breeding grounds for the virus,” she said. “Unlike cruise ships and sporting events or a concert, where I can choose not to participate, prisoners are forced to be in these prisons and cannot do the social distancing required to prevent the illness from spreading like wildfire.”
In October Ivey issued a moratorium on early paroles for inmates and demanded changes after she and state Attorney General Steve Marshall met with the three members of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. She said the board had scheduled hundreds of violent offenders for early parole consideration without justification, causing a threat to public safety and undermining public confidence.