Amid concerns that prisoners face a heightened risk of exposure to the coronavirus, a public interest law firm wants Missouri to release prisoners whose parole has been revoked — in many cases on technicalities.
In an emergency motion filed Wednesday, the Chicago-based MacArthur Justice Center says that prisons and jails are notoriously unsanitary and are not isolated environments, with attorneys, correctional officers, medical personnel and visitors entering and leaving on a daily basis.
“This is critically important to not just protecting our clients’ health and safety, but it’s also a matter of public health,” said Amy Breihan, an attorney with the MacArthur Center. “Experts across the country and even internationally agree that reducing prison and jail populations is critical to mitigating the spread of the coronavirus. So this is about our clients, of course, but it's also about Missouri communities.”
Many of the prisoners have underlying health conditions, placing them at elevated risk for COVID-19, the motion notes.
The Missouri Department of Corrections reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on Monday. The prisoner was hospitalized a week ago.
Karen Pojmann, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Corrections, one of the defendants in the lawsuit, said the department does not comment on pending litigation.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Bough, who sits in Kansas City, has scheduled a telephone hearing on the center’s motion for Monday morning.
About 237 prisoners per month are processed through Missouri's revocation system, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections. That means that hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people would qualify for the relief the MacArthur Center is seeking.
“In fiscal year 2019, over 4,800 were returned to prison on just technical violations, not even including law violations. And over 6,000 every year are processed. So we're potentially talking about thousands,” Breihan said.
The emergency motion was filed as part of an ongoing lawsuit the center brought in August 2017 on behalf of Missouri prisoners who were incarcerated for violating their parole. The suit charges that Missouri has ignored U.S. Supreme Court decisions establishing protections for parolees’ due process rights.
Many Missouri parolees have been imprisoned for technical reasons, such as crossing a state line. In 2016, returns from parole supervision accounted for 35% of all new admissions to Missouri prisons, according to court documents filed in the case. The Missouri Department of Corrections has acknowledged more than 6,000 people face parole revocation each year and roughly nine out of 10 are sent back to prison.
Last year, Bough ruled that the state’s parole revocation policies violated parolees’ due process rights, pointing out that the state had conceded as much. Just two months earlier, he certified the case as a class action, making roughly 15,000 inmates eligible to join the lawsuit.
The only remaining issue in the case is what kind of relief Bough will grant to the plaintiffs. A hearing had been scheduled for next month, but that has been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In its motion, the MacArthur Center asks Bough to release all incarcerated parolees awaiting a parole revocation decision; all incarcerated parolees whose parole has been revoked for technical reasons; all incarcerated parolees who have less than a year left to serve; and all incarcerated parolees whose parole was revoked for conduct that did not result in a criminal conviction.
“This relief is warranted and urgently necessary to protect and preserve the integrity of these proceedings, the safety and wellbeing of the Plaintiff class, and the health of the public at large,” the motion states.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services had reported 356 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Missouri. Eight people have died.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has issued an executive order barring gatherings of more than 10 people, and cities and counties, including Kansas City, have ordered residents to shelter at home.
Those orders, however, don’t apply to prison and jail detainees.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.