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April 25, 2020

"Protecting Rural Jails From Coronavirus"

The title of this post is the title of this new memorandum from Data for Progress authored by Aaron Littman, Lauren Sudeall and Jessica Pishko. Here is its executive summary:

In the summer of 2015, Louisiana’s LaSalle Parish Sheriff’s Department arrested 19 people in a covert drug operation dubbed “Operation Fielder’s Choice.”  One of those people was Charles Keene, who allegedly sold an informant two pills for $20 . For this, he was arrested and, because Keene could not afford bail, he was jailed until trial.

LaSalle is a rural county and its biggest town, Jena, has a population of 3,000.  Because the public defender’s office was both underfunded and had conflicts with Keene’s case — two of the public defenders had represented the informant in previous proceedings — Keene was forced to wait in jail as his trial date faced postponement after postponement. Charles Keene believed he was innocent and hoped to challenge the evidence used against him.  But, the judge wouldn’t proceed until Keene was represented by counsel.  For months, Keene wrote letters asking the judge to put his case on the calendar.  The trial didn’t happen until 2017.

For two years, Charles Keene was incarcerated in the county jail where he faced the deprivations of confinement, a lack of adequate medical care, and the near-loss of custody of his children.  Through his case is one that could happen anywhere in the country, the problems Keene faced are representative of the challenges rural criminal legal systems face.

While national headlines have focused on the spread of coronavirus in large, urban jails, the same attention is now turning to America’s rural communities, where the virus is gaining traction through community spread.  Although the largest outbreaks thus far have been in large jails, like those in Chicago, Houston, and New York, it’s quite clear that rural regions are not going to avoid the ravages of this disease. The question is how these communities will respond.

Rural communities have certain traits that make them particularly vulnerable in a pandemic.  On the whole, people living in rural regions are poorer, older, and less healthy. One in three rural counties has a poverty rate over 20%. More than half of all births at rural hospitals are covered by Medicaid.  Rural communities are quickly losing hospitals and health care providers.  Small newspapers are closing across the heartland, and internet access in rural areas is often limited, so rural residents may not have accurate information about the pandemic or how to best respond.

Many of these concerns are amplified in rural jails.  People detained in rural jails are likely to be there because they cannot afford cash bail.  Judges in rural courts often send people to jail for drug possession, in part because there are few diversion programs. Given the paucity of medical providers and other social services in rural areas, the criminal legal system is often used to address a range of social, emotional, and financial problems that elsewhere may be handled outside of the court system through community treatment or other programs. And people inside the jails may have prior substance use or other medical problems that are exacerbated in a pandemic.

Perhaps most alarming, rural jails are frequently located in counties that lack hospital capacity to handle the coronavirus pandemic.  Our analysis shows that a significant percentage of people being held in jails — 12% nationally and over a third in some states—are housed in counties without any ICU beds.  This could have disastrous consequences should an outbreak occur in a jail located in a rural community without access to critical care resources.

The need for reform in both rural and urban jails is urgent.  This report discusses specific challenges and responses to decarceration in rural communities in light of the coronavirus.

April 25, 2020 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


One of the ugly things that came up early in the Coronavirus pandemic in Kentucky is that 41 of Kentucky's 120 counties have no hospital at all. In Kentucky, this single largest expense for most counties is operating the county's jail. Over the last 10 years, the number of county jails has dropped to 82 from 110. For the sake of efficiency going forward, Kentucky needs a system of regional jails (every 5 or 6 counties would go together and operate a single jail), as West Virginia did about 35 years ago. In the meantime, inmates held in the smaller county jails lack access to adequate medical care. One of the most over-crowded jails is in Madison County (Richmond), Kentucky, where Eastern Kentucky University is located. It has recently been operated at more than 200% of its design capacity, with dozens of inmates sleeping side-by-side on mattresses on the floor. The former Dean of the Univ. of Kentucky College of Law, Prof. Robert Lawson (who also drafted Kentucky's modern criminal code in 1974)has inspected Kentucky's county jails, and had told me that many are just a civil rights lawsuit waiting to happen. He is personally surprised that civil rights lawsuits have not yet been filed against many counties. This is all a prescription for disaster in the CV-19 pandemic era.

Posted by: James Gormley | Apr 25, 2020 5:52:25 PM

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