Fifty-six inmates were released by courts from the Roanoke City Jail this past week — about 10% of a population that generally hovers between 500 and 550 people — as a precaution against the looming threat of COVID-19, officials said.
That push was accelerated by the state Supreme Court’s declaration of emergency on Monday, which drastically limited local courtroom activity in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
But while emptying state courts helps protect the public, slowing or stalling the judicial process threatens those in custody. The social distancing recommended by medical experts is virtually impossible for those in custody and for jail staff, and balancing sanitation efforts with security concerns is an amplified challenge.
“Environments like the jail are more susceptible to the spread of COVID-19, because of the close proximity of the inmates and staff in a confined area,” Roanoke City Sheriff’s Maj. David Bell wrote in an email Friday. “The jail and courts systems are working together to reduce the number of inmates housed in the Roanoke City Jail during this very serious time.”
Bell described the inmates considered for release as primarily nonviolent, low-risk offenders who have been locally sentenced, or short-timers who already had an imminent date to be set free.
“This is not a wholesale release,” Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell said Friday. “This is a fluid situation and circumstances may change, but right now it’s a cautious, preventative matter.”
“It’s being treated on a case-by-case basis,” he added. “When you’re dealing with unknowns, you’re not drawing a line in the sand.”
Caldwell said that while probable cause is the gauge police use to determine whether someone is charged and arrested, “ultimately when you get to the trial phase ... the standards shift to proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
“When there’s clearly probable cause, but we can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt, we are not proceeding forward on those cases. We wouldn’t do that anyway ... but instead of looking a week out, we’re looking two or three weeks out, to get those resolved as quickly as we can.”
Meanwhile, officials on Friday afternoon said 434 inmates were housed in the jail. The majority of those presumably won’t be eligible for any sort of early release, yet their confinement poses risks to both themselves and to the officials and staff who have to remain on hand to keep them housed.
Bell wrote that all new Roanoke inmates are now required to undergo pre-screening before entering the jail. Anyone who seems symptomatic during the process will be quarantined until cleared by medical staff.
All other detainees will be booked into a designated housing area for seven to 14 days and routinely evaluated by staff for signs of the coronavirus, Bell said. After the holding period, inmates will be classified into the jail under standard protocols.
“The criminal justice system is dealing with something like we’ve never dealt with before,” Caldwell said. “Everybody needs to be patient.”
The Western Virginia Regional Jail, which serves Salem and the counties of Franklin, Montgomery and Roanoke, is employing the same strategy, superintendent Bobby Russell said Friday night.
“It’s not haphazard at all,” he said. “We are working with the commonwealth’s attorneys offices in our four jurisdictions, as well as the judiciary. ... Ultimately, they have the final say.”
“We’re employing strategies to reduce our population in order for us to be able to move inmates in and around the facility, if there is an exposure,” he said, adding that the measure focuses on nonviolent inmates who are not a threat to public safety.
Russell said that the facility had released some of those inmates this week but did not immediately have figures for how many.
In Pulaski County, the New River Valley Regional Jail serves multiple jurisdictions, including Bland, Carroll, Floyd, Giles, Grayson, Pulaski, Wythe and the city of Radford.
That facility’s superintendent, Gregory Winston, said there has been no movement toward early release for any inmates, and that no sheriffs or commonwealth’s attorneys in the jurisdictions the jail serves have requested it.
To cut down on traffic in and out of the jail, however, weekend sentences have been stopped for now, with the expectation that those serving time on weekends will resume coming in after the pandemic eases, Winston said.
Officials from the Montgomery County Jail did not immediately respond to questions about the issue.
Staff writer Mike Gangloff contributed information to this report.