KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) – The Missouri State Public Defender's office is calling on judges to consider releasing some inmates due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Likening prisons and jails to "petri dishes," the office points out many people in county jails are awaiting trial and presumed innocent.

The public defenders are also calling on people serving time for misdemeanors to be released.

Executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, Tricia Bushnell, has been openly calling for Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to consider releasing some inmates in light of this pandemic.

She answered the following questions asked by the KCTV5 News investigative unit.

Why are jails and prisons so problematic?

Jails and prisons are incubators for disease because of the very close living quarters and the inability of incarcerated people to control their environment. It is impossible for folks to socially distance or stay six feet away from another person. Inmates, two to a tiny cell, sleep with a toilet next to them and no access to additional cleaning supplies beyond soap. They are allowed no hand sanitizer. Often, there is only one doctor for an entire facility, and correctional guards and vendors pass in and out of the facility each day, further exposing both inmates and themselves to potential infection.

Why is it important for all of us to care about a Covid-19 outbreak in jails/prisons?

Besides the fact that incarcerated people are still Missourians with families on the outside, what happens in jails and prisons affects each and everyone one of us. If those in jail or prison get sick, it will be en masse because the conditions are ripe for the virus to spread. And when that large number of incarcerated people need hospitalization, they will be sent to the same hospitals we are, which are already under resourced and in dire need of ventilators and bed space. It will further tax our medical system, forcing doctors to make difficult ethical decisions about who gets care. And as more and more inmates get sick, more correctional officers will be needed to run the facility – to make sure people are fed, that the facility is cleaned. Those same people will come home and can bring the virus with them, infecting even more people on the outside.

Have the Kansas Department of Corrections and the Missouri Department of Corrections been transparent with attorneys and advocates about the potential problem?

I spoke with clients in MODOC today and none of them had even been informed that someone had tested positive or, knowing that, what additional measures are being taken to keep people safe. Communication from the outside is further shut down as visitation was halted, so they are reliant on phone calls (from a shared phone) to keep in touch with the outside world for updates.

What’s happening in other states?

In Iowa, sentences are being reduced and incarcerated people released to lower the threat. New Jersey has made a plan to release over 1,000 inmates to reduce population and density in the jails. The Chief Judge of the Kentucky Supreme Court is urging courts to release folks from jails as quickly as they can. Around the country, we know this is coming. But in Missouri, no one is taking action.

KCTV5 News reached out to both Peters Baker and Lucas for comment.

Thursday evening, a spokesperson with Jackson County said they had been evaluating detention center lists and were releasing 72 individuals, "for the courts further review."

We have been evaluating detention center lists. We asked the Office of Population Control to provide us a list of potential inmates for release. We evaluated the list and agreed to release 72 individuals for the courts further review. We have proposed a second list to the court for release and we will continue to support release for those individuals who do not pose a public safety risk.

We've not been informed yet about actions taken by the court to release any inmates.

In addition, as we announced recently we have modified our criteria for our diversion program and we have slowed our filing to make space for violent offenders.

The Jackson County Jail reports on their website that the daily population averages 872 inmates. There are 350 employees. 81.2 percent of inmates are in the pretrial process and therefore presumed innocent.

COVID-19 has been confirmed in one MODOC facility in St. Joseph.

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