Irish Penal Reform Trust

US: Fair and Just Prosecution publishes a joint statement from elected prosecutors on Covid-19 on the rights and needs of those in custody

23rd March 2020

A joint statement, signed by elected prosecutors from the US, calls on officials within the criminal justice system to act quickly to stop the spread of COVID-19 within the prison system. While there have already been some official responses to the potential dangers of COVID-19 within prisons, this statement contains further recommendations on how to reduce the prison population and safeguard prisoners’ rights.

The US prison population has massively increased in the last few decades, due to more prosecutions for less serious behaviour, increasingly severe sentences, a spike in immigration detention and the use of cash bail causing high pre-trial detention rates. This has led to overcrowding and reduced access to hygiene facilities and medical care, making a potential COVID-19 outbreak likely to be damaging. Groups vulnerable to the virus are highly prevalent in prisons, with the over 55 age group being the fastest growing demographic in prison, and prisons containing a disproportionate number of people with complex health needs. An outbreak in prison would not just affect people who stay in prison, as large numbers of people move in and out of prisons each day, for example, due to short stays after being arrested. Prison staff, and others who work with prisoners such as legal counsel, or family members who visit prisoners, are also in frequent contact with prisoners but return to their communities.

Recommendations:

Elected prosecutors make the following key recommendations:

  • Achieve reductions in the prison population: Release policies should be adopted for offenses which pose no immediate physical threat to the community. All individuals who are detained due to being unable to afford cash bail should be released unless they pose a serious risk to the public. Decreasing the prison population will minimize cell-sharing and allow for sufficient medical quarantine beds and enough staff to protect and promote everyone’s health. Similarly, prisoners who are elderly or (unless posing a serious risk to the community), those who are within 6 months of finishing their sentence, and those in prison due to technical violations of probation/parole should be released. Procedures should also be implemented that would allow previous lengthy sentences to be reassessed. In sum, support release for those individuals who can be safely returned to the community.  
  • Provide humane conditions of confinement: It is crucial that those who remain imprisoned should have access to good healthcare. Access to legal counsel and family visits should be maintained for as long as possible, with precautions such as glass barriers to prevent the spread of the virus, and phone calls and teleconferencing should be free for prisoners. Containment measures must not interfere with due process (e.g. court dates should not be postponed).
  • Protect and reduce immigrant detention: New immigration detentions should be ended unless there is a strong public safety reason for the detention, and all those under the age of 21 in immigration detention should be released unless they pose a serious risk.
  • Introduce health care measures and protections for confined individuals: Widespread lock-downs or solitary confinements should be avoided as a containment measure, with targeted quarantines being used instead to restrict the spread of infection. Staff and prisoners should be educated about how to reduce the spread of the virus, and staff should be directed to stay at home, with pay, if they feel sick. A humane plan for housing of persons who are not released but who are sick, should be introduced. Patients should receive medical care in a hospital rather than in prison. Free soap and hand sanitizer should be provided in prison settings, with comprehensive sanitation and cleaning of facilities.

Even after the COVID-19 threat dissipates, these measures should be kept in place, in order to reduce the excessive imprisonment rate in the US, and to ensure humane conditions within prisons. While the threat of COVID-19 is serious, it presents an opportunity to address systemic issues such as biases and public health system shortcomings that draw too many people into the criminal justice system in the first place.     

 

The full statement is available at: Fair and Just Prosecution, Joint Statement from Elected Prosecutors on COVID-19 and addressing the rights and needs of those in custody, March 2020 https://fairandjustprosecution.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Coronavirus-Sign-On-Letter.pdf

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.

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