April Newsletter Update
This edition of the coronavirus newsletter includes an editorial by Rabbi Feinberg on the need to release more people from prison, including some who were convicted of committing a violent crime, sample letters to Governors Northam and Hogan, links to articles on reducing prison populations, our monthly letter from prison from MarQui Clardy who is incarcerated in a Virginia State Prison, and a promotion for Giving Tuesday Now.
We Need to Release People Who Have Committed Violent Crimes by Rabbi Feinberg
Sample Letters to Governors Northam and Hogan
Links to three essays on releasing prisoners before their release date
Coronavirus Essay by MarQui Clardy
Giving Tuesday Now
By Rabbi Charles Feinberg, IAHR Executive Director
The image below is from a report published by the Prison Policy Initiative last month in March. It shows graphically the distribution of incarcerated people among state prisons, local jails, and federal prisons. Almost 1.3 million people are incarcerated in state prisons. 713,000 of the 1.3 million were convicted of violent crimes. These numbers bring into sharp focus the challenge that the coronavirus poses to Governors, Prison officials, and to us the public.
IAHR has argued that Covid-19 poses a grave threat to the health of both prisoners and correctional officers in jails and prisons. Since it is difficult if not impossible to isolate everyone in prison, we have urged Governor Hogan and Governor Northam as well Mayor Bowser to release prisoners over the age of 60, prisoners with underlying medical conditions, and prisoners whose release date is a year or less. We have also urged authorities to release people awaiting trial in jail or have been convicted of minor misdemeanors. We believe that officials can release many prisoners who are not considered a threat to public safety.
While there has been some movement on the state and local level, the numbers released are relatively few in proportion to the total number. Governor Hogan has issued an order to release older prisoners, prisoners with underlying health conditions, and prisoners who are four months away from release. But those released were convicted of non-violent crimes. No one who was convicted of a violent crime can be released. Yet over 55% of the prison population have been convicted of violent crimes. Just because someone has been convicted of a violent crime doesn’t mean that person will be violent 10, 15, or 20 years later.
Governor Northam has reduced the jail population by 17% but he has only released a few people from the state prison system. IAHR believes Governor Northam has the executive power to release many more people from state prisons. IAHR has joined with the ACLU-VA to bring a lawsuit in the Virginia Supreme Court asking the Court to order the Governor to release more people from state prisons because of the threat of Covid-19 to the well-being of both correctional officers and prisoners.
Prisons like nursing homes speed the spread of the coronavirus. Correctional officers and staff come in day and night. They bring the virus into the prisons and they can then spread it not only to prisoners but also to other staff and their families. Fewer people in prison means that not as many staff is needed and that more social distancing can be achieved.
At the end of this newsletter you will find links to several articles on why releasing some prisoners who have committed violent crimes is not crazy and not a threat to public safety.
Below you will find sample letters that you can send to Governors Northam and Hogan thanking them for what they have done to release prisoners but also asking them to do more.
Governor Ralph Northam
P.O. Box 1475
Richmond, VA 23218
Dear Governor Northam:
I am concerned citizen and I am very concerned about the well-being of correctional officers and prisoners in Virginia State Prisons. I am grateful that you have been able to reduce the numbers of people in Virginia jails. However, close to 200 prisoners and officers in state prisons have been diagnosed with Covid-19 as of April 21. It is time to act more aggressively by releasing people in state prisons who are not a threat to public safety. Please consider releasing by executive order people over 60, people with underlying medical conditions and people who are within a year of release.
Sincerely, Your Name
You can post this on both Governors’ Facebook pages as well as send a tweet.
Governor Larry Hogan
100 State Circle.
Annapolis, MD 21401-1925
Dear Governor Hogan:
I am a citizen concerned about the well-being of correctional officers and prisoners in Maryland State Prisons. Over 136 prisoners and officers have been diagnosed with Covid-19. One prisoner has died. Therefore, I am grateful that you have decided by executive order to release elderly prisoners, prisoners with underlying medical conditions, and prisoners within four months of release. However, it is time to act more aggressively by including in this order prisoners who have been convicted of a violent crime but who are not a threat to public safety. Prisons are hot houses for the virus. It is time to act now.
Sincerely, Your Name
The Atlantic: Why So Few Violent Offenders Are Let Out on Parole
A Q&A with Georgetown University professor Marc Morjé Howard on parole boards’ incentive to keep inmates in jail
Prison Policy Initiative: Eight Keys to Mercy: How to shorten excessive prison sentences
Letter from Prison
Coronavirus lockdown essay
With COVID-19 spreading across the globe and claiming lives in record numbers, everyone is taking measures to protect themselves from infection. Practicing social distancing, consuming immune system booting foods, and wearing facemasks and gloves have become the norm. But when you think of vulnerable populations that are unable to take such measures to protect themselves, one group that cannot be ignored is the incarcerated population. In a recent report, CNN likened jails and prisons to "petri dishes" for the coronavirus due to their notoriety for having densely crowded living quarters. Regardless of one's status as an inmate or staff member, we are all well aware of the increased danger of COVID-19 in this environment, and frankly, we are afraid.
According to several reports, hundreds of inmates and staff members in jails and prisons across the nation have tested positive for COVID-19. The BOP alone has confirmed more than 300 nationwide cases among federal inmates. Of these cases, there have been over 30 confirmed deaths. We've seen the heart-wrenching video recorded by Aaron Campbell on a cellphone inside FCI Elkton where three people have already died of the virus and dozens of others are infected. Aaron spoke of the lack of help from staff and stated that they felt they'd been left in the housing unit to die. We've heard about the hardest-hit prison, FCI Oakdale in Louisiana, where there have already been at least 5 inmate deaths due to the virus. We're aware of what took place at Landing Correctional Facility in Kansas, where inmates began rioting out of fear because several staff and inmates tested positive for COVID-19, and they felt their safety wasn't being taken seriously.
Fortunately, at this institution in which I'm housed, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19. But knowing what's happening inside other prisons, we can't help but wonder if we will be next, and if, within a matter of weeks or months, ours will be the lives counted among the victims of this deadly virus. Indeed, there is an aura of fear here. Prison isn't exactly an ideal environment to display such an emotion, so no one lets it show or talks about it. But it is evident, nonetheless.
The Virginia DOC has taken steps to decrease the chances of the virus entering the prisons. This was accomplished primarily by placing all state institutions on a "modified" lockdown. This means all visitation, whether from friends and family members or attorneys, has been cancelled to limit our contact with those on the outside. Additionally, interior movement has been halted to lessen the likelihood of the virus spreading throughout the institution in the event that offenders do become unknowingly infected. To this effect, a moratorium has been placed on all religious services and educational and vocational programs; the rec yards, gym, library, and law library have all been closed; and we no longer go to the dining hall to eat. Besides specific purposes, we are not allowed to exit our housing units. We have also each been given two makeshift facemasks (audaciously called "sneeze guards," as if their purpose is to protect the staff from US infecting THEM) which were created by female inmates. Our unit managers have also began giving each inmate one free bar of soap each week to help with personal hygiene.
These measures might help in some capacity, but they may ultimately be rendered ineffective at preventing the spread of the virus by the steps DOC is NOT taking to protect us. For one, although we've been issued facemasks, we haven't been given gloves. COVID-19 can live on some surfaces for days and be spread by touch, so gloves are a necessity! We've also not been given hand sanitizer, bleach, or alcohol because these are all considered contraband in prison. Even in the midst of this global pandemic, DOC would rather chance the virus killing us, than allow us these items that would kill the virus. There are also problems with interior movement. The medical department is too short-staffed to make rounds to each housing unit, so throughout the day, some inmates must leave their housing units to go to Medical for their medication, appointments, etc. While they're there, they're mixing with other inmates from other housing units, nullifying the modified lockdown's purpose of isolating us from each other. Another baffling perplexity is that staff members are not technically required to wear masks and gloves. Some wear them; others don't. Also, of note are the kitchen workers who must come to each housing unit, one after the next, to deliver our food trays. Offenders who incur minor infractions are still being sent to segregation and placed in different housing units when they're released. These are all risks of spreading the virus, should anyone become infected.
Being stuck in this "petri dish" for 12 hours each day, the staff are just as much at risk as we are, and it's clear that they're equally as fearful. To limit staff exposure, the Washington D.C. Jail has announced that its officers would no longer make security rounds. A warden in South Dakota resigned due to coronavirus outbursts at that prison. A nurse at this facility recently opened up to my cellmate about her worst fear, which is that she'll come to work one day and contract the virus and be unable to return home to her family.
If I were not incarcerated, I'd be able to sterilize my home, stay inside, eat healthy, keep my distance from others, and take other necessary measures to protect myself from contracting this deadly virus. For prisoners, however, those are not options. All we can really do is pray that the staff members, in whom our safety and security have been entrusted, are taking this pandemic seriously and protecting themselves. Keeping themselves safe out there DIRECTLY affects our safety in here. Now, more than ever, our lives are almost entirely in their hands.
Mobilizing the World Through Giving
We believe that generosity has the power to unite and heal communities in good times and bad. A global threat like COVID-19 touches every person on the planet, and it presents an opportunity to come together as a global community.
#GivingTuesdayNow is a new global day of giving and unity that will take place on May 5, 2020 – in addition to the regularly scheduled Dec 1, 2020 #GivingTuesday – as an emergency response to the unprecedented need caused by COVID-19.
Let’s come together to create a wave of generosity, citizen engagement, action from business and philanthropy, and support for communities and nonprofits around the world.