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News >  Spokane

Decision to jail man with COVID-19 could set ‘dangerous precedent,’ observers say

UPDATED: Tue., July 7, 2020

A Spokane man was ordered to be held in the Spokane County Jail after reportedly refusing to self-isolate after being diagnosed with COVID-19.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
A Spokane man was ordered to be held in the Spokane County Jail after reportedly refusing to self-isolate after being diagnosed with COVID-19. (JESSE TINSLEY)

An unhoused man who tested positive for COVID-19 and allegedly refused to self-isolate last week has spent, as of Wednesday, seven nights isolated in Spokane County Jail without having committed a crime.

When Spokane Regional Health District Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz issued an order to jail the man last week, the decision was met with immediate backlash from county commissioners, who called it “distressing” in a news release by Spokane County.

The jailing did not involve law enforcement – ambulances transported the man to the jail – and the detainment does not have a paper trail in court documents that an arrest would. Citing patient privacy laws, Spokane Regional Health District spokesperson Kelli Hawkins declined to name the man.

“Basically nobody knows where this man is, who this man is, there’s no ability for outside accountability or oversight – he could die in jail, and we wouldn’t even know,” said Sabrina Ryan-Helton, who posts bail for inmates through the Bail Project in Spokane. “It just smacks of fascism. How can you put someone in a jail with no real public record of it for a medical condition? That is terrifying, and it should be terrifying to everyone.”

In a justice system based on punishment for past behavior, it’s hard to understand preventative detention, said Jeffry Finer, local criminal defense attorney.

It’s not brand new legal ground. Civil detentions, in which people are jailed without criminal protections like a public defender, are not as rare as some might think, he said. People who present a danger to the public, “violent predators,” people with serious mental health issues and those who refuse to give testimony in court can be detained, sometimes for years, without a criminal charge.

“He’s not facing a penalty for past behavior. He’s facing a demand for future behavior,” Finer said. “It’s tricky to look at legally, but here’s what it comes down to: He’s being coerced to behave.”

What Finer found “disturbing” was the choice of a jail for an infectious person who could spread his illness to others in the jail, including officers, and where medical care is not a significant part of the staff’s training.

“It’s not a good place to detain somebody because they’re infectious, but it might be the blunt tool that we’ve got to detain someone who presents a risk to the community,” Finer said.

County Commissioner Al French echoed Finer’s concerns. French said the commissioners and jail Director Mike Sparber had worked hard to keep infections out of the jail. Despite new protocols in place, even a single infection in a densely populated area like the jail “causes concern,” French said.

But French said he recognized the Health Officer considered many other options first. Lutz and Sparber offered to use corrections officers as guards at the man’s hospital room and the patient refused, the county’s news release said.

Angel Tomeo, another bail disruptor at the Bail Project in Spokane, said if the health district had reached out to the community for solutions, they would have found one.

At the Bail Project, Tomeo said advocates want to secure freedom by posting bail and then offer meaningful support for people in the community who are released. Tomeo’s found that in “just about any situation,” when she’s bailed someone out, community programs and facilities are waiting and ready to take care of them.

But Hawkins said the man also refused to go to the SRHD isolation facility where the health district has “accepted and encouraged” homeless people to isolate and where the staff provides free food.

Part of what made it difficult to isolate the man, Hawkins said, was his mental health, which was affected by a history of alcohol and drug abuse.

To Ryan-Helton, a history of alcoholism made a jail cell an even worse choice, because of serious health complications that can arise from alcohol withdrawal. A sick person with additional health issues stemming from addiction should not be held in a facility without “around-the-clock medical care,” she said.

“If they offered to put him in the hospital bed with handcuffs and guards and he said no, so what?” Ryan-Helton said. “Just do it. Why throw him in jail, the perfect incubator for COVID-19?”

Tomeo worries about the “dangerous precedent” the decision sets locally and nationally. Tomeo said criminal justice in America is already tainted by criminalizing poverty, but if an impoverished person can be arrested without a crime, there’s even less accountability.

And if such arrests continue, an influx to the jail of sick people who haven’t committed crimes could also become justification to build a new jail or set up tent jails, Tomeo said.

“I would hate for this to set precedent to do it again and again,” Tomeo said. “That’s what this addiction to incarceration and being punitive in this society leads to.”

Reporter Rebecca White contributed to this story.

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