Hennepin County jail population cut by 44% in light of COVID-19

MSR file photo

Protective measures reveal ‘way too many people in the jail’

Detention centers and jails around the country are scrambling to reduce their populations to help decrease the spread of COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Hennepin County proves to be no exception.

The Hennepin County jail population has gone from 815 on March 16 to 456 on April 14. The facility has had only one reported and confirmed case of someone testing positive for the coronavirus as protocols have been put in place to protect inmates and workers.

“The first step was getting that population down,” said Chief Deputy Tracey Martin of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office. “It was working with the judicial staff, with Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, Department of Community Corrections and Rehabilitations, the Public Defender’s Office, the City Attorney’s Office; it’s just a huge collaboration amongst everybody to take a look at that and see what we could do.”

“I think ultimately we’re going to find that we have held too many people in jail pretrial,” mused Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty.

Safety measures taken include creating ways to reduce the inmate population as well as the health and sanitation procedures that have been introduced. Working with HCMC, the Minnesota Department of Health, and various other public safety agencies, the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office released a plan to curb the potential spread of the virus in its facilities.

“They really started looking at what we needed to do and what procedures we needed to implement to ensure that we keep everybody as safe as possible within our detention facility,” Martin said. “Not only inmates but all of the workers that come in on a daily basis, including the deputies and the healthcare staff.”

Physical distancing is encouraged with reduced populations, stricter admittance processes are enforced, and contact from people outside the facility has largely been eliminated.

“One of the first things we did was suspend all social visiting,” Martin said. “Obviously that’s really tough to do, because people within our facilities, they really rely on those visits from their loved ones.”

Everyone who works within the secure perimeters of the jail is temperature-tested and screened. Accused coming in are put into single cells rather than dormitory or group settings to initially monitor them for signs of illness.

Martin added that they also have Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves for deputy staff and medical staff that come in contact with inmates, as well as for inmates who exhibit signs of infection.

“To date we have only had one positive test, and we’re happy about it, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed because we also know that this spreads quickly and it spreads easily,” Martin added. “We’re very cautious, and we’re keeping all of our new protocols in place.”

While practicing innovative ways to limit the number of pretrial accused in the detention centers, lawyers from the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office and others are nevertheless continuing to interact in court with in-custody clients.

Photo by Phillip Hussong Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty

“It’s really tough because our lawyers are very client-centered and they work very hard at developing relationships with clients, and you don’t do that by standing six feet away from them,” said Moriarty. “But our staff understands that we are protecting our clients by maintaining those boundaries, and we have to have those conversations with clients about why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

She added that “The sheriff’s office has done an outstanding job with coordinating with doctors from Hennepin Health Care in developing a protocol.”

Moriarty said that lawyers wear masks for these interactions, but misinformation surrounding how these protections can work has created confusion and fear not only for the public but also in the detention centers.

“I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be a client being held in jail, being scared,” she said. “You’re scared anyways, and you’re not quite sure what accurate information is.”

Other precautions such as a plexiglass screen in court separating the accused from their lawyers and judges make communication difficult among all parties. In lieu of physical court proceedings, some of the law is going digital.

“We’ve set up quite a routine of remote hearings, where our prosecutor is remote, a lawyer is remote, and even the hearing judge is remote,” said Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman. “We have a thing in Hennepin County called ‘Teams,’ which is a little bit like Zoom except it’s more secure.”

He said that while they are continuing to charge for presumed crimes, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office has substituted mail court summonses for many cases that would have traditionally had an officer bring the accused to the jail.

He added that many of the work release program offenders from the Hennepin County Workhouse, located in Plymouth, have been issued tracking bracelets so they can return home at night rather than back to the workhouse facility.

Now that detention center populations are at record lows, some wonder if this could change the precedent for holding people pre-adjudication, after the COVID-19 pandemic slows.

“There are many of us that feel there are way too many people in the jail simply because they can’t afford bail,” Moriarty asserted. “It’s interesting. Many people have been released, and our jail population has been cut drastically, but there isn’t a huge crime wave out there.”