The urgent need for criminal justice reform during COVID-19

black background white writing "protect people in prison from covid 19"
Image from The Ladies of Hope Ministries
Image of Joshua Wiese smiling to the camera
by Joshua Wiese
19 May 2020

Virgin Unite partners are working hard to save the people most vulnerable to COVID-19.

It’s been said that the COVID-19 crisis, perhaps like no other event in living memory, has cast a bright light on the fragilities and inequities that plague society. There are few places where that light penetrates these dark realities more than the criminal justice system.

The US holds approximately 2.3 million people behind bars. Its sprawling carceral system has become enshrined in American culture as the primary and often only form of accountability answering everything from poverty to addiction to mental illness to violence. The prisons and jails that serve as its foundation are overcrowded and dangerous on the best of days, but amidst this pandemic they’ve turned any length of sentence into a potential death sentence.

Virgin Unite works with leaders across the US (and beyond) who are reimagining accountability in ways that heal and keep people safe far more effectively than mass incarceration. So it’s no surprise that our partners in advocacy and philanthropy were among the first to warn of the mortal risks this pandemic poses to those caged and working inside the country’s prisons and jails, or the surrounding hospitals they rely on to treat medical emergencies.

One of the first people killed by America’s preference for cages in this pandemic era was a young mother of the Cheyenne River Sioux named Andrea Circle Bear, who was sentenced to two years for a minor drug charge and sent to prison eight-and-a-half months pregnant.

Holly Harris from the Justice Action Network detailed the tragic choices that led to her preventable death: “The prosecutor could have declined to pursue such a low-level, rarely prosecuted drug offense. The judge could have suspended her sentence and allowed her to report to prison after she gave birth or after the COVID-19 pandemic subsided. The Bureau of Prisons could have allowed her to serve her sentence in home confinement. She could have been granted compassionate release. “Instead, with full knowledge of her third-trimester pregnancy and reported underlying medical conditions, federal officials placed Andrea Circle Bear in the path of the coronavirus, endangering her life and that of her unborn child.”

Circle Bear tested positive for COVID-19 almost immediately after entering prison and her condition quickly declined. She went into labour on April 1st. Because it’s impossible for a mother to push while on a ventilator, a cesarean section was performed. She died shortly thereafter, leaving behind a baby daughter who will never know her mother’s love.

Once the virus makes its way into a facility, it can spread like wildfire. Incarcerated people around the nation are being infected and dying at high rates. By the beginning of May 2nd,144 prisoners at Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio (over 80 per cent of the people held there) tested positive. At least 12 inmates and one staff member have died. With small packed cells, shared dining and showering facilities, and operating at 100 per cent capacity, physical distancing is impossible. 

Working with epidemiologists to better understand the implications, the ACLU has found that as many as 23,000 people in jail and 76,000 in the broader community could be saved if arrests are limited to all but the most serious offences and the rate of release for those already detained is doubled. In many cities, advocates from groups like The Bail Project and The Justice Collaborative have pushed hard to do just that. While some warned of increased crime as a result, crime has declined significantly in those same cities. 

For people who are released, organisations like The Ladies of Hope Ministries and Impact Justice are working to ensure they have a place to go. And for the millions of people still incarcerated or working in the system, groups like the REFORM Alliance and Florida Rights Restoration Coalition are collecting and distributing massive amounts of personal protective equipment to help keep them safe. 

Public health professionals and corrections officials are echoing advocates’ calls for release to help protect both incarcerated people and the larger communities in which they live. While local jails have reduced their population by more than 30 per cent on average, state and federal facilities have barely moved.

All indications point to this pandemic lasting for months to come, and our partners are working to save as many lives as possible in the meantime. At the federal level, they’re fighting for language in the next emergency response package to force the US Justice Department and its Federal Bureau of Prisons to immediately release to home confinement individuals who are not a threat to public safety, starting with those who are pregnant or elderly, who have compromised immune systems or are otherwise at high risk for Covid-19. 

Harris reminds us of the stakes and our duty to protect those most at risk in her call to action lifting up Circle Bear’s story. “Pass this federal legislation, and name it for Andrea Circle Bear, so that she is not forgotten. We could have saved her life, and instead, we sent her to the deadliest place on earth right now: an American prison.”

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