Alabama Jails and Inmates Facing COVID-Related Challenges

by Daniel A. Rosen |

Like local jails and prisons across the country, Alabama’s carceral system is being sorely tested by COVID-19 – and inmates are paying the price.

For weeks, Dylan Garrard fell asleep on a thin foam mat on the floor of his jail cell, next to a toilet. The two bunks in the cell meant for just two inmates were already occupied. Garrard was locked up on a probation violation stemming from a 4-year-old burglary case, according to court records. “The mats are so thin you can feel the concrete through them, he said.”

The Jackson County Jail where Garrard slept on the floor was built to house 208 inmates, but regularly now holds 220 to 250. So dozens of men are sleeping on the floor on any given night.

Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Rocky Harnen said they’re working with judges to reduce the jail population by lowering bail, or releasing inmates on recognizance. “We’re releasing people as quick as he can,” said Harnen.

But an review of the jail’s publicly available records shows many inmates booked recently on misdemeanors, non-violent drug charges, and probation violations.

The backup is the result of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) halting the transfer of inmates from county jails to state prisons last March due to COVID concerns. When the state began moving inmates again in April, it heavily limited the numbers to allow for quarantine of arriving inmates.

Deputy Harnen said that before the ADOC changed its practices, the Jackson County Jail averaged about 170-200 inmates a night. In addition to a shortage of beds, inmates and their families also reported shortages to of clothing, food, and basic supplies including toilet paper.

Starting in the summer of 2020, the ADOC started testing every inmate transferred to state prison, according to a spokesperson. Any time a new arrival tested positive, a 2-3 week hold is placed on additional transfers.

“It’s a problem statewide,” said the president of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association, Derrick Cunningham.

In December of 2020, there were almost 2000 inmates in county jails awaiting transfer to state prison. Of those, almost 1700 had been waiting more than a month.

Backlogs of inmates waiting in jails for transfer to state custody has long been an issue in the state. In 1998, the ADOC settled a lawsuit with counties by agreeing to pick up state inmates within that 30-day window.

In 2020, with federal coronavirus funds available, the state was able to pay counties for holding inmates longer than a month. But the funds that provided for $28 per inmate per day expired at the end of the year.

“We’ve been able to adjust to this because there’s been some money coming in,” said Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the state’s Association of County Commissions. “But that doesn’t solve overcrowding in the jails that don’t have room in the first place,” he noted.

In Montgomery County, Sheriff Cunningham said he faces staff shortages. Three dozen inmates have tested positive there since the pandemic began.

“Everything the state has to do when inmates get to prisons, those are the same things we’ve got to do when they get to our jail,” Cunningham said. “We’ve got to quarantine and test too. So the burdens are really coming back on the counties. DOC won’t take them if they test positive for COVID, but we still have to house them in our jail.”

Despite ADOC’s COVID mitigation measures, more than 1000 inmates and 700 staff have tested positive for the virus. 48 inmates and two employees have died – a mortality rate for inmates that far exceeds the national average.


Originally written for Prison Legal News.

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