Pandemic Protections Must Extend To People In Prison
Above photo: By Cynthia Briones.
Do Your Job Governor!
Over the past month as the Coronavirus pandemic has swept across the United States, precautions have been made to protect residents including enhancements to operational capacity of health care facilities, closing of non-essential business and the establishment of statewide lockdowns that mandate individuals to self-quarantine. Unfortunately these provisions have not extended far enough to protect incarcerated citizens, many of whom have family members and allies on the outside that have demanded action be taken to protect people in prison. In order to combat the lack of action taken by state governors, slow moving legislation has been introduced in multiple states.
Bills Introduced in the State Legislature
In Massachusetts HD.4963: An Act regarding Decarceration and COVID-19, demands that people who pose no threat to the community be released, including those serving time for simple possession of controlled substances, detained because they cannot afford bail under $10,000 and over the age of 50, who are according to the CDC medically vulnerable. The bill also targets people who are incarcerated as the result of technical parole or probation violations and who qualify for medical parole for release. Finally HD 4963 would expedite the release of anyone within six months of their date.
Along with this piece of legislation that was recently introduced in response to the crisis, there are other bills currently waiting in congress that would also provide relief to people in prison during the crisis by reducing prison populations. In Illinois Sen. Celina Villanueva introduced SB2333, the Earned Discretionary Release Sponsor Bill which would allow prisoners sentenced with LWOP the opportunity to appear before the parole board after serving twenty years. Organizations are encouraged sign on to Chicago Vote’s policy platform that includes SB2333. Understanding that LWOP sentences drain tax dollars, contribute to dangerously overcrowded conditions, and do nothing to make our communities safer it’s essential that we use this crisis as an opportunity to drastically reduce the number of people languishing in prison with natural life sentences.
Similarly, California’s Racial Justice Act, AB2200, sponsored by The bill would allow individuals who were discriminated against on the basis of their race, ethnicity or nationality to seek a retrial and resentencing. Evidence of discrimination in one’s case could be shown in a variety of ways including their conviction proceedings where racist language or actions by prosecutors, defenders, judges or juries were recorded. Now is the time to reexamine this cases in order to be sure that no one suffers from over-sentencing as a result of the sweeping injustices that occurred during the tough on crime era. The re-sentencing of many of these cases will assist with a desperately needed reduction in the California state prison population. A reduction in the number of people languishing in prison would have a huge impact on reducing the spread of the coronavirus. Supporters are encouraged to write a letter of support of the Racial Justice Act to submit to the Assembly portal.
Initiative Ballot Petitions for the 2020 Election
The Michigan Prisoner Rehabilitation Credit Act (MPRCA) is petition collecting signatures to add the question of repealing truth-in-sentencing laws to the 2020 ballot. Michigan is one of a very small minority of states who have no opportunities for early release for people incarcerated in state prisons. In many other regions prisoners can earn time off of their sentences in a variety of ways. MPRCA would offer earned credit incentives for behavioral, professional and academic achievement.
The Ballot Question Committee and it’s supporters have already collected over 100,000 signatures in support of repealing truth-in-sentencing laws but after a statewide quarantine was announced by Governor Whitmer on March 23 all canvassing activity came to a screeching halt. With the statewide quarantine in place its impossible for canvassers to collect signatures, all the events at which one would normally attend to collect have been cancelled. Even, collecting signatures from strangers on a street corner, for example, places canvassers at risk of contracting the virus. MPRCA in collaboration with other ballot question committee groups like the Fair Tax MI and MI LGBTQ Nondiscrimination reached out to the state Board of Electors on how they would remedy the situation, requesting that either the May 22nd deadline be extended or the number of required signatures be reduced, but neither of these requests were approved.
At this point in the canvassing campaign MPRCA supporters have not given up, organizers have re-strategized in order to continue collecting as many signatures as possible during the quarantine period. Rather than depending on collecting signatures at large events organizers are sending petitions to supporters in the mail for people to sign safely and their homes and mail back to the campaign. MPRCA is also focused on expanding its national support base by collecting signatures online. Supporters are placing public pressure on Gov. Whitmer as well as the Dept. of Corrections to restore an earned credit sentencing system before the height of the epidemic.
Social Media Campaigns and Collaborative Letters of Support
A national social media campaign, Clemency Coast to Coast has been launched between organizers from California to New York, demanding that Governors, especially California state Governor Gavin Newsom and New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo, where prisoners are literally stacked on top of each other in mass overcrowded, degraded conditions to use their clemency power to commute the sentences of people confined to prison during the coronavirus crisis, especially medically vulnerable and aging populations. Hundreds of people across the country, including myself, participated in the action by posting themselves on social media calling on their governor to #DecarcerateNow, #FreeOurFamiles and #LetThemGo. The Act of keeping people in prisons that are 120% – 150% over capacity when citizens are being mandated to practice social distancing is cruel and unusual punishment that not only places tens and thousands of incarcerated people at risk but also threatens public safety as a whole.
Governors can support incarcerated people, provide relief to their families and respect the requests of organizational allies by implementing as many of the following recommendations as possible:
- Release people in prison aged 50 years or older (estimated 27% of the prison population) whose risk for reoffending due to their age is extremely low
- Release medically vulnerable prisoners according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Expedite people who are within 18 months of their release date, understanding that the soonest a vaccine would be available to the public is 18 months from now
- Repeal TIS laws and establish earned credit incentives to all people in prison that would provide opportunity for early release
- Establish an Emergency Commutation and Parole Board to expedite parole hearings and commutation application approvals throughout the crisis
- Provide a Coronavirus Commutation application to expedite the release of individuals who post no threat to the community with family members who have been infected
- Provide people in prison with free access to bleach, hand sanitizer, Tylenol, gloves, breathing masks, to prevent the spread of Covid-19
- Set a quota for releases, similarly arrests and ticket quotas, that would incentivize decision makers to identify people who are eligible for release to return prison populations to a more manageable number that would allow prison resources to be re-allocated to more effectively serve those that remain.
Simply release as many people as possible, as safely as possible, as soon as possible before what we thought was impossible [the death of tens of thousands of people] becomes possible. Prison safety is public safety and prison health directly impacts public health and any governor who cares about the lives of their citizens would take time to take the necessary precautions on the inside to protect everyone on both sides or citizens will take that responsibility into their own hands.