Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro says he’s asked his attorneys to prioritize efforts to get as many people out of the county jail as possible in the coming days in response to the looming threat of COVID-19.
“The virus is going to spread like crazy when it gets to the jail, and it’s not going to spare anybody,” the defense attorney said Monday. “Our number one priority is we need to keep people alive."
Nigro said if someone doesn’t pose a serious risk of harm to someone else, they should be released. So he’s directed his attorneys to focus on asking judges to consider bond reductions, house arrest or furloughs of misdemeanor sentences.
They’re trying to get as many people in front of judges as they can, Nigro said. Often by video.
He said he'd been following news about the coronavirus closely as it has unfolded over recent months. His office west of the Hall of Justice was quick to put up signs asking people with symptoms not to come in and to take steps to try to limit in-person meetings.
But he knew county jails, where his attorneys regularly have gone to meet with clients, could become a dangerous place — for attorneys, inmates and jail staff alike — once the virus gets there.
Nigro said the country’s county jails, which hold people accused of serious crimes before trial and people sentenced on misdemeanors, have been likened to cruise ships where the virus has been seen to spread rampantly.
So Nigro reached out to Lancaster County judges and the court administrator, trying to instill a sense of urgency. COVID-19 is in Lincoln and will hit the jail at some point. If they take steps now, fewer people could become sick or die, he said.
“We have to significantly reduce that jail population,” Nigro said.
Last week, the population at the Lancaster County Department of Corrections went from 621 to 596.
“Not nearly enough, in my opinion,” Nigro said.
He said he’s hoping they can make a further dent in that number this week.
“We understand there are going to be certain charges where those folks may not get out. But there shouldn’t be anyone in on a drug charge or a theft or a forgery,” Nigro said.
He said he’d like to see the jail population reduced to 100 or 200 people.
Brad Johnson, the jail’s administrator, said he doesn’t know how realistic those numbers are. But he said he thinks there’s still some room for the numbers to go down. He said they’ve expanded video court capacity, hoping to see more bond reviews and house arrest efforts in the next week or so.
“I think everybody’s taking that seriously and doing everything they can,” he said.
As of Monday morning, they were down to 557 people, 213 of them serving misdemeanor sentences and the rest awaiting trial.
Johnson called the reduction a combined effort, saying law enforcement has been working hard to cite and release folks if they don’t pose an immediate risk to the community, and the courts have been adjusting bonds and letting people out a "little more liberally.”
He said Community Corrections also has been looking at the possibility of releasing more people with ankle monitors, but demand for the devices is up as jails across the country are working to do the same.
Right now, he said, no one in the jail is showing any symptoms of COVID-19. No one has been isolated or quarantined.
Johnson said they're doing everything they can do to keep inmates and staff healthy. They’ve stepped up cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch areas, encouraged staff to wear gloves and started screening anyone coming into the jail, checking for a fever and other symptoms.
Last week, they shut off visitors and volunteers and limited professional access to try to slow any introductions of the virus. Johnson said they’re allowing inmates more phone calls so they can stay in contact with their families.
They’ve got contingency plans in place for when inmates need to be isolated or quarantined, which becomes very staff intensive.
“It’s not ideal,” he said. “But that’s the environment we’re in right now."