The Justice Files: Freedom but with a public warning

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DRAPER, Utah (ABC4 Utah) – Early Tuesday morning family and friends gathered at a parking lot at the headquarters of the Utah Department of Corrections (UDOC).

They kept an eye on movement from the prison which stood across Interstate 15.

They were waiting for any sign of a van leaving the prison.

“I’m not sure when they’ll be here,” said one woman who didn’t want to be identified.

She was waiting for her boyfriend who had been in prison.

Tuesday’s are marked on the calendars of those waiting for an inmate’s release.  But this Tuesday was different.  

Because of COVID-19 , the prison is releasing some inmates eligible for parole, earlier than expected.  At least 80 inmates qualify under these conditions. Shortly after 9 a.m. a UDOC van is spotted leaving the prison and arriving to the parking lot where family and friends wait.

One of those inside the van is Nicole Smith who got an early release.

“I got one week shy of two months off,” said Smith. (I am) really happy.  I’ve been in there a little over a year.”

The early releases are part of UDOC’S to mitigate the spread of corona virus  In addition, programs are temporarily suspended and inmates must follow social distancing rules.

Chester Bailey was another early release inmate.  He didn’t think the prison was doing enough to protect inmates.

“Honestly, I don’t think so,” said Bailey. (That’s) because there’s no social distancing.

He said inmates can get as close as they want once they’re inside their units.  It’s a sentiment shared by Olivia Suwai who was also released early.

“It’s horrible in there,” she said.  “They want to keep us all separated like the pill line and commissary to get our laundry.  But then at the same time, we’re all cooped up in a section by section.  When we eat at tables, we’re not six feet apart. We’re all sitting next to each other.”

Even though the prison is off limits to visitors, a prison advocacy group is worried about the health workers and corrections officers who do leave the prison daily.

“We discovered they do have enough masks and gloves at least right now,” said Molly Prince with the Utah Prison Advocacy Network (UPAN).  “(I) don’t know yet whether officers are wearing masks and gloves in all of the housing units and in both facilities.”

“Some of them wear masks,” said Suwai. “They wear gloves.”

Last week, prison officials announced an inmate tested positive for corona virus.  It was the first inmate to contract COVID-19 at a Utah prison. UDOC won’t release the name of the inmate nor the location where he was housed.  But ABC4 learned the Bonneville Correction Center in Salt Lake City was where it happened.  UDOC would not confirm the information.  But in a press release statement said any facility where COVID-19 was present would be under quarantine and inmates on work release would not be able to leave.

“Half way houses are making rooms separate that are isolation rooms,” Prince said.  “So if someone tests positive, they will go in the room by themselves.  They will have a separate bathroom that they can use.”

Smith who just learned she qualified for early release Tuesday said UDOC is doing the best they can under the circumstances. When asked if she felt safe in prison, Smith answered without hesitation.

“Yeah, for the most part,”  she said.

UDOC said they will also be reviewing whether certain low-risk inmates can also be released early.  Those details are still being reviewed.

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