PIERRE, S.D. — The American Civil Liberties Union and Prison Policy Initiative have given South Dakota a failing grade for the state’s response to COVID-19 in its prisons and jails, according to a news release.

“Mass incarceration was a major public health crisis before the outbreak of COVID-19, but this pandemic has pushed it past the breaking point,” said Libby Skarin, campaign director for the ACLU of South Dakota.

“As cases of COVID-19 surge, jails and prisons remain a breeding ground for the disease. By choosing to ignore that fact, our state officials are knowingly placing the lives of our most vulnerable at risk,” Skarin stated in the release.

According to the ACLU, the report was based on whether or not the state department of corrections provide testing and personal protection equipment to the staff and prisoners, did the state reduce county jail and state prison populations to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, did the governor issue and executive order, or did the department of corrections issue a directive accelerating the release of medically vulnerable prisoners or prisoners near the end of their sentence and whether or not the state regularly published updated, publicly available information on COVID-19 in the state prison system.

The ACLU of South Dakota stated that they’ve urged public officials to “heed public experts advice and immediately release individuals in detention who are at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.”

The ACLU is calling on Gov. Kristi Noem to grant commutations to anyone identified by the Center for Disease Control as particularly vulnerable whose sentence would end in the next two years and to anyone currently being held on a technical supervision violation.

In addition to that, the ACLU is calling on:

● Police to stop arresting people for minor offenses and in other circumstances issue citations in lieu of arrest so that people can return home, balancing the need for arrest with the overwhelming public safety concerns presented by coronavirus.

● Prosecutors to avoid cash bail requests and move for release in all but the very few cases where pretrial detention is absolutely the least restrictive means necessary to ensure a person’s return to court. They should also institute a review-and-release protocol in cases which bail was already sought in the past 30 days and the person is currently detained.

● Judges to allow anyone with an open criminal case and upcoming hearing the chance to voluntarily waive that hearing or conduct that hearing via telephone or video conference.

● Sheriffs to ensure that facilities are as empty, safe, and clean as possible and that hygiene products are free and readily available to incarcerated people and staff.

● Probation and parole agents and parole boards to expedite and expand release opportunities for incarcerated people, reducing the population in prisons as recommended by health experts. Boards should institute a presumption for release for all people who have a parole hearing scheduled in the next two years.

By the numbers

South Dakota’s COVID-19 death toll increased to 97 as of Thursday, July 2, according to the South Dakota Department of Health. Four new deaths were reported to the state, with deaths reported in Beadle, Buffalo, Lyman and Pennington counties.

Two of the deaths were of people ages 80 or over, and the other two were in the 60 to 69 age range.

The total number of positive confirmed cases in the state rose by 67 from Wednesday and now totals 6,893.

Recoveries increased by 49 from Wednesday to 5,982. The total number of active cases rose to 814, an increase of 14 from Wednesday. There are 64 South Dakotans hospitalized with COVID-19.

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