Let’s Stop Potential and Unintended Death Sentences
As the Coronavirus or COVID-19 as it has now been designated, makes its way to the western world, it has infected 214,915 (and counting) and killed 8,733 while simultaneously exposing deficiencies in diverse facets of society’s infrastructures along the way. The United States has been able to take some steps to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 by relaying the message to the public at large of the importance of social distancing, isolation and quarantine. While many have taken heed to that message, folks incarcerated within local county jails/juvenile detention centers and prisons across the nation find themselves in a seriously vulnerable situation with no real ability to address the situation from a position of power and immediate change to keep themselves healthy and coronavirus free. It is only a matter of time before the majority of the U.S. population becomes infected with a guesstimated death toll within the next 12-18 months of 1.5 million Americans.
As advocates for youth and adults behind the wall, we have noted some modalities of how the system is approaching this pandemic and want to amplify that effort and call for more relief for our folks on the inside, a voice that is so often drowned out. The process of flattening the curve is an impossibility within a correctional setting due to the overcrowding, less than adequate health care and architectural designs of some institutions, which in effect make perfect breeding grounds and killing fields for the coronavirus.
Below are some examples of actions that have been or should be taken on a national level to flatten the curve for our community behind the wall to weather this storm as we are out here. We hope that jurisdictions across the nation follow suit and work rapidly to save lives:
Immediately release people from jails and prisons
- San Francisco, California
- The release of folks awaiting pretrial that are facing misdemeanor or drug-related felony charges.
- Prosecutors have also been encouraged by the district attorney to “strongly consider” credit for time served in plea deals to increase jail releases.
- Cuyahoga County, Ohio
- Judges have begun expediting hearings to reduce the jail population. They have released 38 people from the Cuyahoga County Jail and may release at least 200 more people charged with low-level, non-violent offenses.
- Los Angeles County, California
- The Sheriff has reported they have released more than 600 folks to mitigate the risk of virus transmission in crowded jails.
- Travis County, Texas
- Judges have begun to release more people from local jails on personal bonds focusing on preventing people with health issues, charged with non-violent offenses.
- Hamilton County, Ohio
- Sherriff is expected to release people with nonviolent offenses from the county jail.
Reduce jail admissions
- Bexar County, Texas
- Cite and release and “filing non-violent offenses at large,” rather than locking more people up.
- Los Angeles County, California
- The Police department has reportedly reduced arrests from an average of about 300 per day to 60 per day by utilizing citations rather than booking people.
Reduce unnecessary contact, visits to crowded offices, and technical violations for people on parole and probation
- California Department of Adult Parole Operations
- Lowered the number of required parole visits to protect staff and the supervised population by suspending office visits for people 65 and older, and those with chronic medical conditions.
Eliminate medical co-pays
In various states, incarcerated folks are expected to pay $2-$5 co-pays for any medical visits. Incarcerated folks usually do not get paid for the work they do while in custody. This is highly problematic during this pandemic. Some states recognize the harm and eliminated these co-pays.
Reduce the cost of phone and video calls
Most federal prisons, state prisons and many local jails have decided to drastically reduce or completely eliminate friends and family visitation so as to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure in facilities. While many facilities have suspended in-person visitation, only a few have made an effort to supplement this loss by waiving fees for phone calls and video communication.
- Shelby County, Tennessee
- Waiving fees for all phone calls and video communication.
- Montgomery County, Ohio
- One free phone call per day and 2 free emails per day.
- 2 free phone calls per week for the next 30 days.
- One free video call, two free phone calls (up to 15 minutes) per week, four free JPay stamps each week, and they have reduced the cost of outbound videograms reduced by 50%.
- Harris County, Texas
- Two free phone calls per week for the next 30 days.
- Middlesex County, Massachusetts
- Four free phone calls (up to 20 minutes per call) to all people in the Middlesex Jail and House of Correction.
California Advocates have made specific demands to Governor Gavin Newsom:
- Release all medically fragile adults and adults over the age of 60 to parole supervision. Jailsand prisons house large numbers of people with chronic illnesses and complex medical needs, who are more vulnerable to becoming seriously ill and requiring more medical care with COVID-19. And the growing number of older adults in prisons are at higher risk for serious complications from a viral infection like COVID-19. Releasing these vulnerable groups from prison and jail will reduce the need to provide complex medical care or transfers to hospitals when staff will be stretched thin. Individuals who do not have families or others that can offer housing should be released to re-entry facilities.
- Release all people who have anticipated release dates in 2020 and 2021 to parole supervision. People who have been sentenced to determinate sentences and who would be released soon should be released immediately. This will limit overcrowding and free up beds in facilities that will be needed to care for the sick. These people are overwhelmingly in low-level (Levels 1 and 2) security.
- Expedite all review processes for people already found suitable for release, lift holds and expedite the commutation process. For all people who the Board of Parole Hearings have been found suitable for parole by, we ask that you expedite the review process and release these parole candidates. Similarly, you should lift all current holds by CDCR for anyone who has been resentenced pursuant to Penal Code sections 1170(d)(1) and 1170.95. We ask that your office also direct increased resources to addressing the commutation applications that are currently before you and grant the many worthy applications expeditiously.
- Immediately suspend all unnecessary parole meetings. People deemed “low risk” should not be required to spend hours traveling to and from meetings, often on public transportation, to wait in administrative buildings for brief check-ins with their parole officers. As many people as possible should be allowed to check-in by telephone. Further, people on parole who have been under supervision for three years or longer and have not had an arrest within the last 12 months should be discharged from supervision.
CDCR has stated that they will use the same protocols they use for other illnesses, which often means widespread lockdowns or isolating people without care. This approach is both cruel and inadequate.
- Eliminate parole revocations for technical violations. Parole officers and others should cease seeking warrants for behaviors that would not warrant incarceration for people not on parole. Reducing these unnecessary incarcerations would reduce the risk of transmitting a virus between the facilities – jails and prisons – and the community, and vice versa.
- Lift all fees for calls to family members. As CDCR has limited visits to people who are incarcerated, it is critical that these individuals be able to communicate with their family members and loved ones. All phone calls made by those who are incarcerated to their family members and loved ones should be made free during such time as family visits are limited.
- Insist that CDCR adequately address how they will care for people who are incarcerated. In addition to taking steps to immediately address overcrowding, all people who remain in custody should be cared for. We note that in all of the CDCR information released thus far, there is a shocking lack of concrete details given as to the exact steps CDCR is taking to prevent infections or to care for those who get sick. CDCR has stated that they will use the same protocols they use for other illnesses, which often means widespread lockdowns or isolating people without care. This approach is both cruel and inadequate. At the very minimum, all people who are incarcerated must have access to soap and running water. Hand sanitizer should be made widely available and possession of hand sanitizer should be allowed. Appropriate medications and treatment should be available to all without cost. People who are sick should be cared for by appropriate medical staff.
Author: Airto Morales, W. Haywood Burns Institute.
Media: Eddye Vanderkwaak, W. Haywood Burns Institute.