Utah prison officials plan to release at least 80 inmates early in response to coronavirus

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Utah prison officials announced Thursday that they will release at least 80 inmates early amid the coronavirus pandemic.

This adds to the hundreds of people in Utah’s local jails are expected to be released in the coming days as law enforcement officials try to limit how many people are packed into locked facilities where the virus could spread quickly.

There hasn’t been any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Utah’s jails or the prison as of Thursday — but it has started spreading in jails in other parts of the country.

Advocates have called for prisons to release elderly or sick inmates, but Utah officials at this point seem to be focusing instead on letting out those who already had a parole date in the coming months.

The Department of Corrections said Thursday that it has asked the parole board to release 80 inmates who are within 90 days of their scheduled release date and have an approved address, with more releases expected over the next month.

"The [parole] board shares the heightened concerns of advocates, loved ones and corrections professionals for the health and safety of incarcerated and community-based offenders during the current COVID-19 outbreak,” said Dennis Moxon, director of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole. “Board staff are working closely with UDC to identify incarcerated persons whose early release would not jeopardize their successful completion of evidence-based programming or compromise public safety.”

Prison officials emphasized that those who are being released early already were expected to be going back into the community within the next few months. They expect to begin releasing those prisoners next Thursday.

The prison has also set aside an extra day for prisoner releases to limit the number of people gathering together. They have told people who are coming to pick up an inmate to stay in their car, and have one person bring prison officials a shirt and pants for the inmate to change into.

County jails in Utah began releasing inmates this week after Matthew Durrant, the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, issued an order Saturday canceling all jury trials until at least June and telling Utah judges to reassess all defendants held on class B or C misdemeanors to determine if they could be released from jail.

It’s expected that as many as 200 inmates will be released in Salt Lake County, where the inmate population has taken a noticeable drop in the last two weeks. There were 1,746 inmates in the jail on Thursday, compared to 2,148 two weeks ago.

The Uintah County jail has also released about 60 people, and another 25 have been let go from the Duchesne County facility. It’s estimated that a few dozen have been released in Weber County, and releases are expected in Davis County as well.

A handful of sheriffs have asked their local police agencies to give people tickets instead of taking them to jail for lower-level crimes. That’s how the Utah County jail has reduced its population, Sgt. Spencer Cannon said, adding that they weren’t planning any early releases. Utah County Attorney David Leavitt said this week that his office has started seeing “quite a few” motions from defense attorneys asking for their clients to be released.

Utah jail officials have been taking extra precautions to try to keep COVID-19 out, which has included more cleanings, heightened medical screenings and taking the temperature of anyone who enters the facilities. Most have banned visitation, and some are offering inmates a certain number of free phone calls as a way to keep in touch with their families.