Utah Supreme Court asked to order officials to let out more inmates in response to coronavirus

FILE - In this Feb. 25, 2015, file photo, a watch tower is seen at the Wasatch facility during a media tour at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Draper, Utah. Authorities say Utah is seeing a dramatic surge in their prison population as more people are convicted on new crimes and drug violations, KSL TV reports. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool, File)

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A new court petition filed Wednesday demands that Utah prison officials and local jails do more to reduce the number of people behind bars during the coronavirus pandemic.

The petition for extraordinary relief, filed Wednesday with the Utah Supreme Court, asks the high court to order Utah officials to take “immediate steps” to release those who are incarcerated but have not yet been convicted, those who have been convicted but have less than 180 days left on their sentence and all of those who have a high risk for complications if they contract COVID-19.

“This order would prevent the loss of life and harm that the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic would cause in correctional facilities,” the petition reads.

The petition was jointly filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, the Utah Disability Law Center and the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The three groups argue that it is appropriate for the state’s highest court to step in because it is imperative that quick action is taken before the coronavirus spreads within jail walls.

“The dangerous spread of COVID-19 throughout Utah correctional facilities is nearly inevitable without immediate action from respondents,” the petition reads, “and no other legal remedy would provide a plain, speedy, or adequate response needed to avert a medical crisis in Utah’s correctional facilities.”

So far, there have not been any officially confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Utah jails or prisons — though a Utah defense attorney said her client tested positive a day after he was released from a Salt Lake County jail facility, and another man began showing symptoms days after he was released from the Uintah County jail. It has been spreading at jail facilities in other parts of the country.

Utah officials have been making efforts to reduce the incarcerated population — but if the Utah Supreme Court grants the petition, it would take those efforts further.

The Utah State Prison has asked that more than 80 inmates be released early, focusing on those who already had parole dates in the next 90 days. Salt Lake County officials released a few hundred people over the past few weeks, lower-level offenders who are not accused of violent crimes.

Other counties are similarly releasing low-level offenders, and sheriffs are asking police to give someone a ticket for smaller crimes rather than bringing them to the jail.

But family members of those who are incarcerated say they are worried that enough isn’t being done to stop COVID-19 from spreading in jail facilities. Several told The Salt Lake Tribune that inmates are forced to stand close to each other in crowded spaces, despite warnings from state officials that people should stay six feet apart. Inmates are not given access to hand sanitizer, they say, and jail officers are not wearing masks or gloves while they are working.

Prison spokeswoman Kaitlin Felsted confirmed that hand sanitizer is not provided, but soap is given to inmates for free. The inmates are given extra cleaning supplies, she said, and unit cleanings have been increased. She said it “depends on the scenario” if officers are wearing protective equipment.

There were no confirmed COVID-19 cases at the prison as of Wednesday, but prison officials have not released the number of inmates who have been tested. The prison says all of the results were negative.

The Salt Lake County jail on Tuesday said it had done five tests at its Metro facility, and all have come back negative.