Chattanooga activists are calling on the city’s leaders to release certain inmates from the Hamilton County Jail and Silverdale Detention Center to help stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
They’re also calling on Governor Bill Lee to grant certain inmates clemency.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread and impact countless lives, we must demand that our state and local officials take action now. Chattanooga’s Mayor, Andy Berke, and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger must use their executive powers to mitigate the harm and take steps to lessen the impact that this virus will have on our most vulnerable community members. Though efforts are being made in the city and county, these are not enough to guarantee and protect the basic human and civil rights of all our residents,” a petition being circulated by Concerned Citizens for Justice reads.
Activists say the demands detailed in the petition “have been crafted by a coalition of over 40 justice-oriented and grassroots groups located across the state.”
Last Friday, concerned citizens held a rally in front of the John P. Franklin Sr. City Council Building downtown calling for the release of those being held solely on drug charges, individuals with less than three years left on their sentence, and inmates who have served at least 20 continuous years on a life sentence.
A huge red sign with black lettering, spelling out the words “Free Them All,” was mounted on the front door of the building.
“Incarceration during COVID-19 is a death sentence,” noted Concerned Citizens for Justice leader Ayana Clemmons. “We know that the unwillingness to act by the people in positions of power will inevitably result in the spread of COVID-19 among incarcerated populations, as well as our community as a whole.”
At press time, there is only one confirmed COVID-19 case at the Hamilton County Jail, a federal inmate who was transferred from the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, where 576 inmates tested positive for the virus.
The federal inmate is currently in quarantine for 14 days.
The petition being circulated by the Concerned Citizens for Justice also asks for the end of pretrial detention and the release on their own recognizance “of all newly accused of a crime without setting bail and without restrictions.”
Addditionally, the petition requires the “release of all incarcerated people who are particularly vulnerable to illness; including but not limited to elderly and pregnant people, and/or those with serious chronic medical conditions, mental illness or differing ability.”
Other petition demands include: the release of all individuals with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) holds; cessation of all in-person court proceedings, in-person parole officer meetings and pretrial hearings; vacation of all outstanding bench warrants; dismissing of any pending charges and probation violations, and the release of anyone being held in a halfway house; suspension of all court costs and parole fees, including fees for video visitation and telephone calls; and daily COVID-19 screening options for any who request, including temperature checks.
“Knowing the extent of the virus’s spread within our correctional facilities is critical as incarcerated individuals remain one of the most vulnerable populations during this pandemic,” Gov. Lee said in a statement. “Thanks to our increased capacity, we’ll test all inmates and staff statewide in order to take appropriate actions to safeguard the health of these vulnerable individuals.”
The News Chronicle contacted Mayor Berke and Mayor Coppinger, but by press time neither had responded to a request for comment.