Horns honked and chants filled the streets as several dozen cars rode through downtown Nashville today for a “car parade” protest, urging officials to release more inmates from the county’s jails.
The sheriff, district attorney and public defender have been working together since mid-March to reduce the jail population, to minimize the risk of an unmanageable outbreak of COVID-19. The number of people in custody has dropped 20% since the first case of the coronavirus was reported in the state, from 1,245 on March 5 to 994 on Friday, according to the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office.
But criminal justice reform advocates say local leaders haven’t done enough to prevent a large-scale outbreak of COVID-19 behind bars. That’s why they took to the streets today.
Jails & prisons pose a serious risk to public safety due to the impossibility of physical distancing. Families are terrified for their incarcerated loved ones. Esp during this moment, we must shift resources away from incarceration towards the needs of community. #DecarcerateNow pic.twitter.com/fD77iDQWsz
— Free Hearts (@freeheartsorg) April 24, 2020
“Public safety and public health are tied into each other,” says MarTaze Gaines, a community organizer with Nashville’s chapter of Southerners on New Ground.
Gaines says releasing people from jail won’t necessarily put the public’s safety at risk — many people are stuck in jail pretrial because they can’t afford bail. The public defender’s office said in a press release earlier this month that more than 80% of people detained in Nashville’s jails have not been convicted of a crime.
“They are human,” he says. “These are humans that also deserve a fighting chance and don’t deserve to have a death sentence for the coronavirus.”
Gaines was disappointed when the General Sessions Court decided earlier this month to rule against an emergency motion filed by the public defender’s office, asking judges to release many inmates being held pretrial. Instead, the court said it would be safest to allow the DA’s office to review cases one by one, to ensure that those released don’t pose a serious threat. The DA has authorized the release of several dozen inmates from a list of low-level offenders compiled by the sheriff and public defender.
But as the number of people in jail has shrunk, the number of coronavirus cases has gradually increased. Nine sheriff’s office employees and 11 inmates have tested positive. More than 120 have been isolated from the general population, either because they’re sick or may have been exposed to the virus.
Still, Nashville’s jails are actually better off than many others in the state. The Sycamore Institute recently found that, in the weeks before COVID-19 made its way to Tennessee, 60% of jails throughout the state were near or above capacity. And the more crowded a jail is, the more difficult it is for those inside to practice social distancing.
According to a report released this week by the ACLU, in partnership with the University of Tennessee, the coronavirus could kill about 100,000 more Americans than expected if jail populations don’t dramatically decrease. Researcher founds that jails are a particularly powerful spreader of the virus, because both inmates and staff are frequently cycling in and out.
“The death toll will likely be significant — both in Tennessee jails and in our community beyond — if dramatic steps aren’t taken quickly to reduce the number of people behind bars,” ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said in a statement. “We know that many Tennessee jails are overcrowded and we are hearing reports of inadequate social distancing and a lack of access to soap, hand sanitizer and PPE in Tennessee jails and prisons. Numerous public health experts have warned that coronavirus infections inside jails and prisons will inevitably spread into the community, as this data shows.”