Marc Perrusquia

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and  political reporting. Follow the Institute on Facebook or Twitter @psr_memphis.

Exclusive: COVID threat triggers jail bailouts

Armed with $75K, advocates seek mass release of vulnerable inmates at Shelby County Jail

By Updated: March 24, 2020 6:03 PM CT | Published: March 23, 2020 9:42 AM CT Exclusive

A damp chill hung over downtown Memphis as Josh Spickler walked up to the Shelby County Jail to bail out five inmates he’d never met.

“We just want to ramp up the process and then get as many as we possibly can (out of jail) before this virus really gets going,’’ said Spickler, 45.

He carried five white envelopes, each stuffed with cash, along with the hopes of many who believe Tennessee’s money bail system unjustly punishes the poor by keeping many nonviolent inmates behind bars on unproven charges because they can’t afford to buy their way out. 

As executive director of Just City, a nonprofit criminal justice reform organization, Spickler has been doing this sort of thing for years.

But on this inclement Sunday afternoon of March 22 – as the County Health Department announced that COVID-19 had spread to another 22 people, bringing the total reports of infections here to 66 – Spickler was on a special mission.

Armed with $50,000 from the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization and another $25,000 from an anonymous donor, he intends to bail out a series of inmates this week who are believed to be vulnerable to COVID in the tight confines of the jail.

“There needs to be just a fairer, more efficient way,’’ said Spickler, who contends officials aren’t moving fast enough to remove inmates from harm’s way.

 The Institute for Public Service Reporting is based at the University of Memphis and supported financially by U of M, private grants and donations made through the University Foundation. Its work is published by The Daily Memphian through a paid-use agreement. Follow the Institute on Facebook or Twitter @psr_memphis.

“So, it just becomes even more important to us to get people out of that jail before this virus really hits the community, because we have a broken system that depends on wealth to determine who’s in and out of jail.’’

Spickler plopped down nearly $9,500 to buy freedom for the initiative’s first five defendants, including Royester Murrell, 26, who’s been held since Feb. 5 on a $100 bond connected to a vandalism charge; Lisa Marie McDaniel, 49, held on a $3,000 bond since March 13 for a forgery charge and Rashad Dailey, 33, held on $4,000 since Dec. 4 for a series of vandalism charges.

Those defendants were in various stages of processing prior to release late Sunday and could not be reached for comment by the Institute for Public Service Reporting.

A spokesman for Sheriff Floyd Bonner said last week in a written statement his office is reviewing files of inmates held on nonviolent charges “with bonds under $500 and/or with serious medical concerns’’ and is sharing the information with “criminal justice colleagues who can present them to the courts for possible release’’ without payment.

Meantime, Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft said he believes many inmates are safer in jail than out on the streets because of medical and security precautions taken for the incarcerated.

But as other jurisdictions took stringent measures to release inmates – Alameda County, California released more than 300 inmates last week while Nashville-Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall announced the expansion of pretrial release criteria and other measures that triggered a purge there – a growing chorus of critics were calling for more aggressive action in Memphis.

Former Shelby County Pretrial Services director Bill Powell said he sent an email to Sheriff Bonner, County Mayor Lee Harris and Commission Chairman Mark Billingsley requesting proactive steps to protect the vulnerable population in the jail.

Powell praised Bonner’s appointment of former General Sessions Court Judge Mischelle Alexander-Best as jail “expeditor’’ – a move that has reduced the jail population by several hundred over the past year, but said in his email, “I would suggest it is not enough given the level of crisis we face.’’

Powell proposes that Bonner, Harris and Billingsley take a plan to the county’s General Sessions and Criminal Court judges seeking release of inmates with bonds of $10,000 or less, placing them in the supervision of Shelby County Pretrial Services for the pendency of their cases.

He argues that judges have already performed risk assessments on inmates held in the jail on bond. If they could afford to do so, those inmates would obtain bail from bond companies at a cost of about ten percent of the bond’s value – $1,000 on a $10,000 bond, for example.

“If there is concern about releasing these individuals it should be noted they could obtain their own release if they had $1,000 so, in essence, they are detained for a lack of money not because of the level of threat,’’ Powell wrote in his email.

Efforts to reach Harris and Billingsley Sunday evening were unsuccessful.

Memphis Police Department spokeswoman Karen Rudolph has said the agency has encouraged officers to issue misdemeanor citations in lieu of arrest “when able’’ during the COVID crisis, yet records show they still remain aggressive at times. A street prostitution bust by the Organized Crime Unit on March 17, for example, led to several arrests of individuals booked into the jail only to be released the next day on their own recognizance.

To be fair, Spickler said he doesn’t believe officials have been completely unresponsive to the COVID jail threat.

“I don’t want to say that no one’s doing anything. And I don’t want to say that people are callous about it, because I don’t think that’s true. I think we’ve heard, at least from the sheriff, some efforts that are under way from his office that are trying to address this problem,’’ he said.

Spickler said attorneys in the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office, where he once worked, have been actively seeking bond reductions for clients and some individual judges have responded favorably. But he says he’s still disappointed that while bonds in some cases have been reduced to $250 or so, many inmates still can’t afford it – and judges still refuse to release those inmates outright.

“So, it’s hard to paint with a broad brush,’’ Spickler said. “But generally speaking, yes, this community is addressing this crisis just like it does its criminal justice on any given day, and that is with an eye toward incarceration and punishment – an an eye toward oppressive supervision. And it’s a culture that we have here and it’s playing out in this case of this virus as well.’’

Nationally, many experts agree with Spickler that inmates living in tight quarters are at heightened risk of COVID because of the inability to socially distance themselves or practice appropriate hygiene, including frequent hand-washing.

“People who live in congregate settings, including detainees and prisoners, are at risk of acquiring this infection,” Dr. Robert Greifinger, New York State Department of Correctional Services’ former chief medical officer, told the Al Jazeera news network in an email last week.

Spickler said he’s unsure how many inmates his organization will bail out this week. But the coronavirus crisis poses a certain chaos, he said.

Normally, when Just City bails out an inmate through its Memphis Community Bail Fund, that inmate’s attorney makes contact with the nonprofit seeking the action. But now that process is reversed: Pressed for time, Spickler is first reaching out to attorneys of incarcerated inmates seeking authorization. Because of the speed of the process, an inmate isn’t necessarily going to know who bailed him or her out or why.

To help bridge that communication gap, Spickler said the General Sessions Court Clerk has agreed to distribute a flyer to released inmates informing them how they were bailed out and why. The defendants are told they must show up for court hearings or Just City will forfeit the cash posted for bail.

The Memphis Community Bail Fund is a revolving fund. Once a defendant completes the court process, the cash bail is returned to the fund to help another defendant. The fund has a 90 percent success rate, Spickler said.

Factors considered in selecting inmates to bail out include the amount of time in jail. Spickler said one of the tragic consequences of incarceration is the disruption of employment and family structure – and it’s often harder to help individuals who’ve spent months in jail.

“We’re looking at people who have not been in there for too long,’’ Spickler said. “Those are the kind of folks who typically we can help with jobs and preserving family structures and things, people who’ve only been in there for days or weeks instead of months. So those kinds of things are the considerations.’’

At times a defendant’s attorney may recommend against release, if, for example, a mental illness aggravates his or her ability to effectively function out on the street, Spickler said.

Though Just City is not a faith-based organization, the principles of faith are at its core, he said.

“We are all united by something, by some something greater than us – and that means all,’’ Spickler said. “Every single one of us is united like that and though we may fail and we may hurt each other and we may do catastrophic, tragic things to each other, each of us has some ultimate redeemable core to us.’’

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coronavirus Shelby County Jail Just City Josh Spickler

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