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Coronavirus Pandemic: Over 300 Alameda County Jail Inmates Approved For Early Release

SANTA RITA (CBS SF) -- Alameda County authorities announced Thursday that 314 inmates at its jail facility have been approved for sentence modification and early release during the current coronavirus crisis.

Sheriff Gregory Ahern said in a phone interview that he took that action at the request of Alameda County Presiding Judge Tara Desautels, Public Defender Brendon Woods and District Attorney Nancy O'Malley.

Ahern said 247 inmates were approved for early release after their sentences were modified and another 67 inmates were released by the court on their own recognizance.

Ahern said his office will continue to release inmates when it's feasible while still protecting the public's safety. He said the inmates who've been released were relatively low-level offenders.

The release of the 314 inmates reduces the number of inmates at Santa Rita to 2,401, according to sheriff's officials.

"We continue to release when we can while protecting public safety," deputies said in tweet.

Most of those had 45 days or less to serve in jail.

"This is an emergency, and everyone needs to rethink their priorities. People at the jail are at higher risk of infection because they're housed so close together. The best way to stop the spread is to release people so they can practice social distancing like the rest of us," said Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods.

Inmates were being processed and released about every 15 minutes Thursday evening.  

Men and women walking out of the facility with clear plastic bags of belongings, smiling and cheering, happy to finally have their freedom back.

"I was happy. My heart started beating. I mean I'm always happy whenever I get out of jail.  You know, it's just a good thing. It's actually kind of a trip to be outside of jail, you know, looking back at it. I'm not in it, I'm out here, which is a good feeling," said Andre Palmore.

Palmore said he's been in and out of jail for the last 20 years. His latest run in with the law was a repeat DUI conviction. He was surprised by his early release.

"There was one dude, while I was getting released, he didn't even know he was about to get released. So he was happy. He called his family like, 'Mama, they just released me.' He [doesn't] know how. He said he just got released. And I think it's got something to do with that little virus," said Palmore.

The Alameda County Sheriff's Department said there are no coronavirus cases at Santa Rita Jail. However, authorities believed reducing the inmate population will help them better manage any future outbreaks.

"We're in unprecedented times and we're in a health emergency.  And we're doing everything we can on the public safety side. During times like this, tough decisions have to be made," said Alameda County Sheriff's Department spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly.

Kelly said most of the released inmates are non-violent, low-level offenders.  But there are some violent felons who are also getting the early release.

"There were some that were typically we would not want to release.  There were people who had been involved in some assaults and assaults with deadly weapons or brandishing handguns," said Sgt. Kelly.  He said those are being released because they have underlying, chronic health problems.

"I feel like it might be a smart move because the virus is a bigger threats than the inmates," said Gabriel Ladron, a Dublin resident who lives not too far away from the jail.

"It's protecting everybody. So all those that are sitting there that got minor crimes should be released and put in place where they can work and get back to a decent life," said Isa Kalifa, who is also in support of the idea.

But there are people who worry the early release could increase crime.  They said they will have to deal with more criminals out in the streets on top of the coronavirus pandemic.

The sheriff's department said they will will continue to identify and release more low-level offenders in the coming days.

Inmates at Santa Rita Jail had delivered a grievance to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors on Monday, alleging that the conditions at the county-run jail were unsafe, especially in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, according to an inmate advocacy group.

Santa Rita Advocacy alleges in a news release, "Conditions inside Santa Rita Jail, as in all jails and prisons, have always been a public health crisis, as prisoners have continually emphasized in their communiques."

The group says, "Institutions such as Santa Rita have never provided access to the proper cleaning and sanitation supplies, nor anywhere near adequate medical care."

The sheriff's department did not say if the inmate releases were in response to the complaint.

Also on Monday, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith announced that four county jail inmates remained isolated after potentially being exposed to a person who tested positive for the virus.

She said there were currently no confirmed cases, but that two inmates had met with a person who tested positive for the virus, and two others were mailed letters from the same person, so all four were put in isolation.

She did not share the relationship of the person to the inmates.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Public Defender's Office has called for the immediate release of pre-trial jail inmates who are at heightened risk of contracting the virus.

In a statement, Public Defender Mano Raju said his office would begin filing motions to seek the release of all clients in San Francisco county jails at heightened risk, such as people over 60, those with heart or lung disease, diabetes, cancer, HIV, or autoimmune diseases.

"We are taking this action to protect older adults and those with compromised immune systems who are extremely vulnerable right now. People who are incarcerated in jail are already exposed to an unsafe environment," said Raju. "The cramped and unsanitary conditions in jail put the older or immunocompromised population at a much greater risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus."

Raju said his office would work with the district attorney, sheriff, and courts to identify safe alternatives to pre-trial detention for those identified individuals

Raju also said he asked the Sheriff Paul Miyamoto review all jail inmates with less than 6 months left to serve to determine who may be eligible for immediate release on electronic monitoring or work release programs.

"These are cases where the court has already decided that it's safe to release someone into the community, and will be doing so in the very near future," said Raju. "This will help reduce the population on the inside, allowing for recommended distance between individuals during this public health crisis."

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