The Ramsey County jail is under fire from a bail-providing nonprofit alleging that coronavirus-related health conditions are so dangerous inside the facility that it is halting its services for low-income inmates.
The Minnesota Freedom Fund, which gained momentum after jails in Minneapolis and St. Paul started taking in people arrested in connection with the unrest over the police-involved death of George Floyd, said it can no longer risk its staff’s safety when posting bail for inmates who otherwise can’t afford to do so.
Greg Lewin, executive director of the organization, said in a letter this week to Sheriff Bob Fletcher that his group suspended bailing out Ramsey County inmates on July 22 because of several troubling aspects for anyone in the space for bail transactions, which must be made in person and in cash, although bail bond companies can make electronic transactions:
• No partition between where the bail is paid and where an inmate is released.
• Tight quarters where bail is posted, which can get crowded with others there transferring money to inmates, making calls to the jail or awaiting someone’s release.
• Lax enforcement of mask use by civilians and Sheriff’s Office deputies.
• Prolonged exposure in the bail-payment area. Transactions run anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes.
“You’d think a jail wouldn’t have to play catch-up to Trader Joe’s” when providing a lower-risk environment, Lewin said Thursday, “especially when they speak the language of public safety.”
Lewin said the Sheriff’s Office replied to his letter and pledged to follow up. The Star Tribune also has requested a response from Fletcher or other senior staff to the fund’s points.
In the meantime, Lewin said, there are at least a dozen inmates in the jail who have requested bail assistance from the fund but now are left with three options less appealing than being released as their criminal cases proceed: remain locked up, pay a bail bond company to post the bail, or plead guilty to a crime, possibly to one that would not have otherwise led to conviction.
Lewin suggested in his letter to Fletcher that bail transactions be moved to a safer neighboring space, where other clerical duties are conducted and inmate photos are provided. He said it compares similarly to the layout in Hennepin County.
“This change, along with appropriate signage about masks and readily available hand sanitizer, will improve conditions and will eliminate unnecessary risks for our bail payers,” Lewin’s letter continued.
Andy Skoogman, a spokesman for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, said the bail payment area receives “extra cleaning” as part of the effort to counter the spread of the coronavirus. In addition, he said, visitors lacking a mask are provided with one and there is hand sanitation in the jail’s public lobby.
Lewin also told Fletcher that his organization has heard from several public defenders who are “sharing incidents of exposure to symptomatic individuals, sometimes without any warning from jail staff.”
Jim Fleming, the county’s lead public defender, said he’s fielding complaints from his attorneys about “a breakdown in social distancing, and the lack of masks and enforcement of policies.”
Fleming said he’s had lawyers who have contracted COVID-19, but he’s at a loss to know for sure whether the illnesses are work-related because “nobody is doing contact tracing. And I don’t know how many lawyers are asymptomatic.”
“We are on the front end of this,” he said. “I don’t want to be seen [as] sending my lawyers over a cliff.”