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Top Legal Innovations 2021: Missouri Appleseed

Finola Prendergast (left) and Liza Weiss

Finola Prendergast (left) and Liza Weiss

COVID-19 Protocol for Courts and Jails

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted virtually every aspect of society in dramatic ways. But it is easy to overlook some of the people most at risk, those who either work or live in the correctional system.

“Research has shown that COVID rates among people in prisons and correctional workers were higher than among the general population so it seems reasonable to assume that living or working in a congregant facility like a prison or jail is a risk factor for COVID-19,” said Finola Prendergast, director of research for the non-profit Missouri Appleseed.

The organization, which frequently deals in research, education and advocacy at the intersection of criminal justice and public health, collaborated with experts to create a protocol of best practices which aimed to ensure that Missouri’s prisons did not become overwhelmed with illness as the state grappled with COVID-19.

Attorney Liza Weiss, founding executive director of the group, said that the idea did not take a one-size-fits-all approach to the state’s places of incarceration.

“One innovative aspect of the protocols is that there are a variety of types of measures correctional facilities can take depending on the resources they have available,” said the St. Louis native who graduated from George Washington University Law School. “We understand that a facility like St. Louis County potentially has more ability to make higher cost improvements to the facility or take higher cost actions to limit the spread of COVID whereas a small rural jail may not be able to do that.”

Likewise, Prendergast said that the project’s report by Dr. Fred Rottnek created a program with enough flexibility for each facility to apply it to their own situation. Moreover, it could provide a blueprint for dealing with future pandemics as well.

It all boils down to four areas – divert, decarcerate, protect and vaccinate.

Diversion involves trying to avoid detention for those accused of non-violent offenses or reimprisonment for minor violations of parole while “decarceration” involves early release for some prisoners or compassionate release for medically vulnerable inmates.

Prendergast said the “protect” section was by far the most extensive.

“Functionally, it contained a lot of information about educating people in prisons and jails — residents, staff and visitors — on how best to protect themselves against spread of the virus,” she said.

The vaccination prong of the initiative took issue with the tiered vaccination schedule which gave priority to corrections officers but left the prisoners they guard to wait until inoculations were available for everyone.

“Since the state has incarcerated people, the state has a constitutional obligation to take care of their healthcare so it needs to take reasonable measures to protect people in prisons and jails from contracting a potentially deadly virus,” Prendergast said. “That’s both a legal issue and a human rights issue.”

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