Fresno County jail releasing inmates, creating quarantine space to prepare for coronavirus

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Fresno County is now releasing inmates early to free up space to isolate and quarantine inmates diagnosed with COVID-19.

There are currently no confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the jail, but as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has jumped in Fresno County, Sheriff Margaret Mims has taken note.

"We've already been told by the health department to expect the numbers to go up," she said. "The more people that are tested, the more are going to end up being positive, and it might be very likely this will find its way into the jail, and we need to be prepared for that."

Jails and prisons can act like petri dishes for spreading viruses.

"When you think about a jail it really is a place where people have close contact, close areas where they touch," said Sheriff Mims.

The sheriff started to clear out space in the jail over the weekend.

Since Thursday, she's released more than 200 inmates nearing the end of their punishments and reduced the jail population by about 140 inmates.

They're not allowed to send anyone to state prisons during the coronavirus crisis and already had a backlog of prisoners because of a mumps outbreak this year. So releasing inmates who have fewer than 30 days left on their jail sentences is giving them room in case of a new outbreak.

"One of the things we are preparing for is that if we do have COVID in the jail, we need to have places to isolate people and quarantine people, so we're trying to prepare and plan about where that's going to happen," Mims said.
The virus can spread quickly among the jail population, but not everyone who's infected will show symptoms. That's a concern for people who work in the connected court system.
Fresno County's courts are scheduled to be closed through April 3, but attorneys, judges, and courtroom staff can all have somewhat close contact with each other and inmates.

The state's chief justice has extended the constitutional deadlines for some court hearings, and she's encouraging courts to adopt technology for doing hearings by video.

"Social distancing can be maintained in the course of preliminary hearings and arraignment, if necessary," said Fresno-based defense attorney Eric Schweitzer, who has pushed Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye on behalf of clients. "These are critical stages of the criminal proceedings."

Video arraignments could begin soon in Fresno County.

The sheriff says jail bookings are down about 15% compared to last year, but there could be a slow, steady flow of early releases until the crisis calms down.

For more news coverage on the coronavirus and COVID-19 go to ABC30.com/coronavirus
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