Indiana prison and jail conditions are ripe for widespread outbreak

On behalf of people who are incarcerated and most at risk, the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana submitted an emergency petition today, requesting the Indiana Supreme Court take immediate action designed to stem the progression of COVID-19 in the Indiana Department of Correction (DOC) and Indiana’s county jails.

The United States Constitution requires that the safety of people who are incarcerated be protected and this need is heightened in the current pandemic. Indiana law allows for steps to be taken to release both those awaiting trial and those convicted, to safer environments. 

People in prisons and jails are highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illnesses. Given the rate of transmission of COVID-19, the spread once this disease enters a jail or prison would be quick and potentially deadly. People who are incarcerated are housed in close quarters and are often in poor health. In addition, social distancing is impossible in Indiana’s jails and prisons. Prior to this public health emergency, Indiana county jails were already facing an overcrowding crisis, with 77 percent of Indiana’s jails overcrowded or at capacity in 2018. Overcrowding in these facilities increases the public health risk for everyone.

Some Indiana counties have taken steps to reduce their jail population amid this pandemic, but statewide action is critical. Several state courts across the country have already taken action to temporarily decarcerate their states’ prisons and jails.

The ACLU of Indiana petition recommends the Indiana SupremeCourt immediately issue emergency steps to identify pretrial detainees and incarcerated people who are at high risk of death because of COVID-19 exposure and may be eligible for release to home detention. This would include waiving bail requirements for pretrial detainees who do not pose an immediate threat, and in the case of convicted persons, determining whether a sentence reduction or suspension is warranted so the person may shelter at home.

“Ensuring the safety of at-risk individuals in Indiana’s jails and prisons is not only a humanitarian necessity, it is a constitutional requirement,” said Ken Falk, legal director at the ACLU of Indiana. “The only way of hoping to stop the deadly spread of COVID-19 is to take these additional steps in the criminal legal system. This will benefit not just people who are incarcerated, but those who work in jails and prisons, and go back and forth to their families and communities every day.”

In addition to concerns regarding the general incarcerated population, subjecting people who are detained pretrial to unreasonable risk of harm violates their Fourteenth Amendment rights. As of 2018, more than half the people in Indiana county jails were awaiting trial and had not been convicted of a crime.

“People in jails and prisons have little ability to inform themselves about preventive measures, or to take such measures if they do learn of them,” said Jane Henegar, executive director at the ACLU of Indiana. “We must drastically reduce the number of people who are arrested and detained pretrial. Locking people up unnecessarily amid this pandemic, especially those who are medically vulnerable, threatens their health and, potentially, their lives.”

 

Attorneys on the case include Kenneth J. Falk, Stevie J. Pactor, and Gavin M. Rose, American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.

MEDIA CONTACT 

Ariella Sult, Director of Communications, asult@aclu-in.org