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STATE WIDE–Jails and prisons in Indian are overcrowded and the ACLU of Indiana says that’s a reason to let people out, if they can be let out safely, to avoid them or prison or jail staff getting coronavirus. The ACLU legal department is making that request to the state Supreme Court, said ACLU legal director Ken Falk.

“Social distancing is an impossibility in prison and in jail,” he said. “What we’re asking the Indiana Supreme Court to do is to send an order out to the trial courts to consider the possibility of releasing prisoners.”

People who are incarcerated are housed in close quarters and are often in poor health, said a news release from the ACLU, outlining the reasoning for the petition.

LISTEN: Ken Falk, legal director for the ACLU of Indiana on the possibility of letting people out

Prior to this public health emergency, Indiana county jails were already facing an overcrowding crisis, with 77 percent of Indiana’s jails overcrowded or at capacity in 2018. Overcrowding in these facilities increases the public health risk for everyone, said the ACLU.

The organization acknowledged that some Indiana counties have taken steps to reduce their jail population, but said statewide action is critical.

Falk said the courts could go through their dockets to see who could be safely released to wait out the pandemic at home. In turn, sheriffs and the Dept. of Correction would make recommendations for prisoners to be released.

He said it could be accomplished in several ways, including, “reducing bail for persons who are pretrial or changing sentences or temporary release for persons who are imprisoned”.

“This is not an adversary action. We are not suing anyone. We are not saying anyone is doing anything wrong,” said Falk. “The Indiana Supreme Court, we feel, is in a significant position where it can effect this opportunity to review these cases by directing the courts to do so.”

Falk said he believes action is necessary not only because of over crowding, but because of the personnel who get repeated exposure going back and forth to work in jails and prisons, making more people vulnerable to the spread of the virus.

In addition to concerns regarding the general incarcerated population, subjecting people who are detained pretrial to unreasonable risk of harm violates their Fourteenth Amendment rights, said the ACLU. As of 2018, more than half the people in Indiana county jails were awaiting trial and had not been convicted of a crime.

“People in jails and prisons have little ability to inform themselves about preventive measures, or to take such measures if they do learn of them,” said Jane Henegar, executive director at the ACLU of Indiana. “We must drastically reduce the number of people who are arrested and detained pretrial. Locking people up unnecessarily amid this pandemic, especially those who are medically vulnerable, threatens their health and, potentially, their lives.”