Groups push to reduce incarceration as jails become coronavirus ‘hotbeds’
A consortium of groups from across the political spectrum are pushing to reduce incarcerations, warning that U.S. jails and prisons are becoming “hotbeds” for the spread of the coronavirus.
The groups released a plan on Thursday proposing to release elderly, sick and nonviolent criminals to home confinement.
They’re also looking to suspend jail sentences for technical violations, such as missed appointments or unpaid fines; to suspend probation office visits; to offer free medical consultations, treatment and sanitizer to inmates; and to promote additional precautions for guards and prison staff.
The effort is being spearheaded by Van Jones’s REFORM Alliance, with buy-in from the nonpartisan group Justice Action Network, as well as the conservative groups Americans for Prosperity, the Faith and Freedom Coalition and the American Conservative Union.
The groups are asking state and federal lawmakers to move quickly to curb the spread of the disease within the criminal justice system.
“Our main mission is to make sure people aren’t going back to prison for minor violations,” said Jones, the CEO of the REFORM Alliance. “I never thought it would be a potential death sentence for someone to get sent back for missing an appointment or not paying a fine or fee, but that’s where we are.”
The REFORM Alliance and Coalition Partners say they’ve met with governor’s offices in 21 states and are ramping up outreach to Congressional lawmakers and officials in President Trump’s administration.
“We believe that the preventative mitigation measures in the plan would keep these jails and prisons from becoming hotbeds for spreading the virus,” said Jessica Jackson, the chief advocacy officer for the REFORM Alliance.
The groups pointed to some early successes in counties in Kentucky, Wisconsin and Ohio, where local officials have in some cases sent hundreds of nonviolent offenders home so that they’re not kept in close quarters with thousands of others.
“We are urging members of Congress and the White House — read the room, call your office back home,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network. “This is a public health crisis. It’s critical to address overcrowding in jails and prisons. It’s not just cell inmates, it’s prison workers and the entire surrounding community.
The U.S. has more than 2.2 million people in prisons and jails, and the groups note that many of the incarcerated individuals are housed in facilities that are often over capacity. In addition, the groups said that incarcerated people have higher rates of underlying health issues, putting them more at risk of death from the coronavirus.
“The close conditions and lack of access to hygiene products in prisons and jails make these institutions especially susceptible to viral pandemics,” the groups wrote in a memo. “Incarcerated persons often avoid seeking medical attention because of medical co-pays and lengthy wait times, which create a lag in identifying and treating conditions, leading to an increase in the severity and spread of illness.”
The groups are looking to thin out the imprisoned population to curb the spread of the contagious disease, hoping that local officials agree that the elderly and nonviolent offenders can be put on house arrest with electronic monitoring, where appropriate.
The groups are hoping to get prisoner sentences commuted for those with less than eight weeks left in their terms. And they’re hoping to cut back on in-person courtroom appearances that can be conducted over the phone or computer.
“There are going to be people who say no, you do the crime, you do the time,” said David Safavian, the deputy director for the American Conservative Union. “Those folks who don’t believe in any change in circumstances based on this pandemic need to go back and reassess their moral compass.”
The groups are also asking that co-pays for incarcerated individuals be waived for those with symptoms related to COVID-19. They’re requesting that hand sanitizer with alcohol be declassified as prion contraband, and seeking to increase cleaning schedules in jails and prisons.
“All of these artificial silos we have in life, the government, schools, hospitals, and in this case prisons, we tend to see those silos in society as not interconnected,” said Timothy Head, the executive director for the Faith and Family Coalition.
“But the reality is, all these systems are connected and interdependent on one another. To say we should deal with nursing homes, schools, large areas where people convene, but not deal with jails, prisons and courtrooms is naïve. It’s not realistic.”