On Monday morning, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed an emergency request to the state Supreme Court to order county courts to release vulnerable populations from city jails. Philadelphia activists amplified the call to action through an organized social distancing caravan targeted at key decisionmakers. These actions follow the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Philadelphia prisons and jails, which were reported last Friday.
For weeks, the ACLU, local activists, community organizations, the Defender Association of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office have been urging the release of vulnerable populations from conditions where social distancing is impossible. The First Judicial District (FJD) courts and Governor Wolf, however, still refuse to step up to inhibit the rapid and fatal spread of COVID-19. Two weeks into the alarm being raised on coronavirus in Philadelphia, the FJD has released minimal numbers of immunocompromised and elderly individuals, far fewer than the hundreds or thousands that have been released in other jurisdictions across the country and world. The courts have also rejected emergency release petitions based on public health concerns for those detained on probation or parole violations, barring many youth and adults who pose no threat to society from returning safely home.
Despite a foreboding history of communicable disease outbreaks inside detention centers, Governor Wolf has also declined to proactively save lives by closing inhumane facilities and exercising his gubernatorial powers of compassionate release. People awaiting immigration cases in York County Prison are on hunger strike to protest insufficient measures for their safety. The Berks County Immigration Detention Facility in Leesport, PA, one of the nation’s three immigration detention centers for families seeking asylum, lost its state license to operate in 2016 due to dangerous conditions and ongoing human rights abuses of residents, including infants. Yet Governor Wolf’s administration reiterated last week that they would not issue an emergency removal order unless there is a serious threat to public health inside the walls, an irony not lost on advocates and immigrant families currently fearing for their lives at the prospect of COVID-19 entering the unsanitary facility.
Jails and prisons as institutions pose a greater public safety risk than any individual they cage. This was true before the pandemic began and is an even more urgent truth as the virus enters jails, prisons, and detention centers. These overcrowded facilities lack access to soap, sinks, paper towels, and hand sanitizer and put both those who are incarcerated and those who enter these facilities for their work at risk, as recently seen on a large scale in New York City’s infamous Rikers Island Jail. The FJD and Governor Wolf could immediately reduce overcrowding and mitigate this risk without any threat to public safety. Governor Wolf could enact massive compassionate release with just the stroke of a pen, which would free any elderly or immunocompromised person at increased risk for contracting and dying from the disease. He could also order the release of community members detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who are held for no crime other than lacking documentation while they otherwise contribute robustly to our communities. The FJD could supplement these efforts by releasing all those charged on low-level offenses from county jails and discontinuing arbitrary bail amounts. There’s no good justification for wealth-based detention in general and it is particularly indefensible during a pandemic. The courts and the governor also have the power to extend compassionate release to individuals who are up for parole review, individuals within six months of their release date, pregnant individuals, and youth in county and state detention facilities – many of whom are medically vulnerable and in conditions violating the federal ban on solitary confinement of youth because of facilities’ attempts to follow social distancing.
Community members are anxious to welcome children, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, grandparents, partners, and friends home, people they have often traveled thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars in travel expenses and private prison phone company bills to stay connected to during the months, years, or decades of their incarceration. Precautionary measures for COVID-19 now forbid most visits to jails and prisons. Most facilities have not replaced those visits with video conferencing alternatives or lowered costs per phone call minutes to talk with lawyers and families. This strains already obstacle-ridden bonds between those behind barbed wire and those in the outside world. If and when our loved ones are connected to the basic resources and support systems they need to survive, they are less likely to commit crime and more likely to contribute positively to society when they come home, as so many returning citizens do. In the midst of this deadly pandemic, allowing them to sustain those bonds through early release also grants them access to health-sustaining resources and the ability to social distance, preventative measures mandated by the governor himself to ward off and slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Governor Wolf and the FJD must take immediate action before they risk condoning hundreds if not thousands of preventable deaths in the state. Government inaction on continued overcrowding of carceral facilities has already resulted in chaos and deaths in places such as Italy and Colombia. Our city and state have an opportunity to instead follow the example of neighboring states, to embrace humanity and public health common sense in mitigating the disastrous effects mass incarceration will lend to COVID-19’s rapid spread.
About the Author: Hannah Prativa Spielberg is currently pursuing a Master of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania. She worked for four years as a social service advocate for the Defender Association of Philadelphia. Hannah is inspired by the leadership and love-based activism of community members and friends who have experienced life from the inside of prisons, jails, and detention facilities, who moved her to write this piece.
Hannah recommends following @YASP2, @aclupa, @powerinterfaith, @DecarceratePA, @Closethecreek, @Phillybailout, @phillybailfund, @mediamobilizing, @BBworkers, @BLMPhilly, @LILACPhilly, @JustLeadersUSA, @AmistadLaw, and/or @reclaimphila for updates and ways to get involved in the fight.