‘Release the truth’: Protesters march for COVID-19 jail data

Tuscaloosans are petitioning Sheriff Ron Abernathy to be transparent about how COVID-19 is affecting local incarcerated people.

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Protesters marched around the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse on Saturday as they demanded Sheriff Ron Abernathy release COVID-19 data for the county jail.

“Release the data, release the people, release the truth,” the protesters chanted.

An accompanying petition calls on Abernathy to follow proper safety guidelines, reduce the population of incarcerated people in the over-capacity system and create a public COVID-19 dashboard to monitor the spread of cases. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a lawsuit against Abernathy on Nov. 23, four months after he failed to comply with an open records request for the release of COVID-19 data. 

The lawsuit requests information about the number of tests administered, the number of positive results and related cell assignment policies.

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“Despite this perfect storm created for COVID-19 to spread and the dangers it poses to Tuscaloosa residents inside and outside the jail, Sheriff Abernathy is refusing to disclose information, which the public is entitled to under Alabama law,” SPLC staff attorney Alex Jordan said. 

Abernathy has not yet replied to the lawsuit. 

He reported to local media that the county jail, which is operating at 135% of its capacity, has tested 7% of its more than 6,000 bookings since March. The tests revealed a 39% positivity rate. 

Abernathy said there have been no COVID-19-related deaths at the county jail. 

Nikhil Singh of the T-Town Freedom Marchers said he finds it scary to imagine what results would look like if testing was increased. He encouraged people everywhere to look at how their local jails are responding to the pandemic. 

Maggie Yancey, one of the protest organizers, said the data should be released to the public “because COVID knows no boundaries.” 

“What’s happening in the jail doesn’t affect just the people having it in the jail,” she said. “It affects those [who] are staffed by the jail, their neighbors and all those families that have some connection to the jail.”

The protesters demanded that Abernathy release low-level offenders and medically vulnerable people to reduce the inmate population and curb the spread of COVID-19.

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In March, three Alabama counties released inmates with bonds below $5,000 to combat overcrowding in jails, but it’s up to sheriffs to decide which inmates are released. 

Mike Altman, one of the protest organizers, suggested a cite-and-release system as a method to handle low-level offenders. 

“I think it is cruel to lock people up for minor offenses in a jail full of COVID,” Altman said.