South Dakota’s response to COVID-19 in its jails and prisons has earned the state a failing grade from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Policy Initiative, according to a recently released report.
The new 50-state report, entitled “Failing Grades: States’ Responses to COVID-19 in Jails & Prisons,” shows that, despite having ample time and information to take the steps necessary to heed the warnings of public health experts, South Dakota has refused to adequately address the threat that the COVID-19 pandemic poses in jails and prisons.
“Mass incarceration was a major public health crisis before the outbreak of COVID-19, but this pandemic has pushed it past the breaking point,” said Libby Skarin, campaigns director for the ACLU of South Dakota. “As cases of COVID-19 surge, jails and prisons remain a breeding ground for the disease. By choosing to ignore that fact, our state officials are knowingly placing the lives of our most vulnerable at risk.”
The report evaluates states’ responses to the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails using the following criteria:
- Did/does the state department of corrections provide testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) to correctional staff and the incarcerated population?
- Did/does the state reduce county jail populations and state prison populations in response to the spread of the pandemic?
- Did the governor issue an executive order — or the department of corrections issue a directive — accelerating the release from state prisons of medically vulnerable individuals and/or those near the end of their sentence?
- Did/does the state publish regularly updated, publicly available data on COVID-19 in the state prison system?
This report not only highlights that callous disregard but also provides actionable steps for those same governments to take immediate steps to save the lives of people in jails and prisons.
The ACLU of South Dakota has urged South Dakota officials to heed public health experts’ advice and immediately release individuals in detention who are at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, specifically calling on:
- Gov. Kristi Noem to grant commutations to anyone identified by the CDC as particularly vulnerable whose sentence would end in the next two years, to anyone whose sentence would end in the next year, and to anyone currently being held on a technical (crimeless) supervision violation.
- Police to stop arresting people for minor offenses and in other circumstances issue citations in lieu of arrest so that people can return home, balancing the need for arrest with the overwhelming public safety concerns presented by coronavirus.
- Prosecutors to avoid cash bail requests and move for release in all but the very few cases where pretrial detention is absolutely the least restrictive means necessary to ensure a person’s return to court. They should also institute a review-and-release protocol in cases which bail was already sought in the past 30 days and the person is currently detained.
- Judges to allow anyone with an open criminal case and upcoming hearing the chance to voluntarily waive that hearing or conduct that hearing via telephone or video conference.
- Sheriffs to ensure that facilities are as empty, safe, and clean as possible and that hygiene products are free and readily available to incarcerated people and staff.
- Probation and Parole Agents and Parole Boards to expedite and expand release opportunities for incarcerated people, reducing the population in prisons as recommended by health experts. Boards should institute a presumption for release for all people who have a parole hearing scheduled in the next two years.
“Failing Grades: States’ Responses to COVID-19 in Jails & Prisons” comes at a time when COVID-19 is still decimating jails and prisons. Millions of people leave jails and prisons every year, each person serving as a vector to outside communities, as documented in a recent ACLU report. Too many facilities are still responding ineffectively in a way that further undermines public health and basic human rights. The assessments in the report offer guidance as to what states can still do to save lives now and in the case of future waves of COVID-19 — or future pandemics. There is a key lesson to be learned: States must downsize the footprint of their criminal legal system for the sake of public health and racial justice.
About the ACLU of South Dakota
The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of civil liberties and civil rights. The ACLU of South Dakota is part of a three-state chapter that also includes North Dakota and Wyoming. The team in South Dakota is supported by staff in those states.
The ACLU believes freedoms of press, speech, assembly, and religion, and the rights to due process, equal protection and privacy, are fundamental to a free people. In addition, the ACLU seeks to advance constitutional protections for groups traditionally denied their rights, including people of color, women, and the LGBTQ communities. The ACLU of South Dakota carries out its work through selective litigation, lobbying at the state and local level, and through public education and awareness of what the Bill of Rights means for the people of South Dakota.