Once it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was a public health crisis in the United States in early March, our work quickly pivoted to decarceration efforts to prevent Pennsylvania jails and prisons from becoming COVID hotspots.
On March 16, we partnered with the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project and FAMM to send a letter to every jail, prison, and immigration detention center in the commonwealth. The letter outlined ten areas of concern for the health and welfare of incarcerated people during the pandemic and urged jail and prison administrators to take a science-based approach to keeping both incarcerated people and staff safe during the pandemic.
Soon after we sent the letter, it became clear that jails and prisons were unable or unwilling to protect the people inside their walls. Reports poured in from across Pennsylvania alleging that numerous jails and prisons were not providing basic sanitary items like soap and regular showers, could not provide adequate space for social distancing, and were using solitary confinement —an established form of torture— as a means to quarantine sick individuals. We knew then that decarceration of medically vulnerable and elderly people was going to be the only way to prevent a disastrous spread of the virus in jails and prisons.
Two days later, on March 18, we joined the Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project in a letter calling on Governor Tom Wolf to use all executive powers at his disposal to decarcerate Pennsylvania’s prisons, including compassionate release for medically vulnerable and elderly prisoners, presumed parole for people who have served their minimum sentences, and expedited Board of Pardons hearings to review commutation applications.
That same week, we challenged the continued use of cash bail by Philadelphia courts during the pandemic, a practice that in normal times criminalizes being poor, but in a pandemic can amount to a death sentence. We also asked Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine to encourage the release of medically vulnerable people from incarceration.
By the end of the month, with jail administrators and the governor still dragging their feet on decarceration, we appealed to the state Supreme Court to use its “King’s Bench” authority to order the release of vulnerable people from Pennsylvania county jails and to limit new admissions to the most serious offenders. Technically, the court rejected the request but, in actuality, it ordered every county president judge to reconsider whether more people could be released, a process that resulted in several thousand more people being released from county jails across the commonwealth.
Following up on our March 18 letter, we released a statement on April 1, calling out Governor Wolf for his failure to use his powers of reprieve to order the release of vulnerable people from state prisons. Ten days later, the governor announced his intention to do just that. Using his powers of reprieve, the governor could have released as many as 1,800 people. But more than eight months after his announcement, only 160 people have been released under the program.
We knew that mass decarceration efforts would not be easy, but the lack of leadership by jail and prison administrators and elected officials in failing to better protect incarcerated people is simply appalling. It’s easy to imagine how little lives are valued in our criminal legal system. The inaction of those in power during the pandemic confirms this awful suspicion.
Our work to protect people in jails and prisons and to release all medically vulnerable people continues. We are participating in a working group with formerly incarcerated women to secure the release of as many people as possible from women’s correctional facilities near Philadelphia. We are also participating in a lawsuit to improve the conditions inside the Philadelphia facilities, particularly regarding access to visitation rights and the amount of time the women are allowed to leave their cells, even as we continue to work toward the release of the women most vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
We also filed a lawsuit against Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh over its failure to protect incarcerated people from COVID, which resulted in significant changes to the jail’s policy and procedures.
Of course, our work to decarcerate Pennsylvania jails and prisons will continue beyond the pandemic. Reducing the incarcerated population by 50% remains a primary goal of our Campaign for Smart Justice.