The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office is stuffing extra beds to deal with its crowded jails

The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office jail population peaked at 22.5 percent over capacity in early March, a stark rise since last year's short-lived decrease at the start of the pandemic. The rise in the jail population is largely driven by defendants awaiting trial, according to data provided by the law-enforcement agency. 

Originally, Duval County’s three jails — the Pre-Trial Detention Facility, the Montgomery Correctional Center and the Community Transition Center — had a combined capacity of 3,077, and on March 2 there were 3,772 inmates, according to the Sheriff’s Office and the data. But instead of releasing non-violent pretrial inmates to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, as advocates have demanded, the sheriff’s office said this week it added extra bunks into cells to increase the capacity to 4,025.

For the past year, advocates have demanded that Sheriff Michael Williams release non-violent offenders and that police cite and release people instead of jailing them in order to mitigate the risk of the spread of COVID-19 among inmates and jail staff. 

“People want to go back to normal,” said Michael Sampson, an organizer with the advocacy group Jacksonville Community Action Committee. “And what’s normal for the Sheriff’s Office is to have overpopulated jails.”

With the latest increase of bunks in cells, it could raise the risk of inmates contracting COVID-19. Health experts have warned that people socially distance in order to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

“For a number of reasons, incarcerated people are also disproportionately likely to have underlying health conditions, putting them at greater risk of complications from COVID-19 than the general population,” according to UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. “The most humane response to the pandemic is therefore to release as many people from custody as possible and push for better health and safety practices for those who remain incarcerated.”

The overpopulation comes a year after the State Attorney’s Office had issued a memo calling for the reduction of the Duval County jail population by releasing people serving sentences on misdemeanors, releasing some people without bail and those awaiting trial.

David Chapman, a spokesman for the State Attorney’s Office, said in a statement that the prosecutor’s office efforts have led to a reduction in the non-violent jail population in the past year and it will continue to work with the courts and the public defender’s office “to review appropriate cases.”

“For violent offenders, or those offenders who represent a danger to the community or a flight risk, we will continue to seek their detention,” he said. “While the jail population has increased due to retention of violent offenders and those defendants who did not fall under our review guidelines, we anticipate with the resumption of jury trials that there will be an increased resolution of these cases.”

The sheriff’s office said it is taking the pandemic seriously but as far as releasing inmates to reduce the spread of the virus, a spokesperson said it is up to the courts to decide that. He added that inmates are being tested, masked and vaccinated, too.

“Keeping the virus at bay and the safety of the inmates has been a concern and a priority since the onset of COVID-19,” said police officer Christian Hancock, a spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office.

Advocates however say the sheriff and prosecutor’s office is not doing enough.

“Their plan is not working,” said Ben Frazier, a leader with the advocacy group Northside Coalition. “That, or their plan is faulty or their commitment is faulty.”

Frazier echoed Sampson’s comments, saying that people should scrutinize the Sheriff’s Office about the overcapacity because of the risk of spreading COVID-19.

“It’s a definite health risk,” he said.

He added that the general public should be concerned about this because it is also affecting people who are not in jail, such as jail staff and their family members.

Frazier said the sheriff, the state attorney and the courts need to work together to release non-violent inmates, people who have fewer than 90 days left in their sentences and people who are behind bars only because they can’t afford bail. 

He added that probation officers need to stop recommending people to jail over “technical violations” such as failing to pay a fine, loss of employment or missed curfew.

“It is wrong to subject people who have not been adjudicated as guilty to this kind of liability,” he said. “They are doing a very poor job.”

Contact Uriel J. García at urieljgarcia@gmail.com.

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Tributary Updates

Today’s story was written by Uriel J. García, who until recently covered police in Phoenix at the Arizona Republic. Uriel is freelancing for us thanks to funding we’ve gotten from the Local Media Foundation.

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