This Report is intended to help people who are affected by incarceration and their advocates navigate the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and public health crisis. A team of legal researchers at Columbia Law School has assembled a guide to information and resources related to COVID-19 about (1) release from incarceration, (2) health, safety, and education issues in and after incarceration, (3) benefits and the social safety net in the community, and (4) domestic violence. The goal is to connect people in New York with the best available information so they can get legal and social support where possible and advocate for themselves and others affected by incarceration during and after the pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis poses an imminent risk of serious illness or death for people incarcerated or working in correctional facilities.
Based on this analysis, “New York City's jails have become the epicenter of COVID-19.” Federal prisons and prisons across the country are reporting exponential increases in rates of infection among incarcerated individuals and employees working in these institutions. High rates of infection in New York City’s jails are a bell-weather for other corrections facilities.
The public health crisis in corrections institutions is both predictable and lethal, leading the Board of Corrections and chief medical officers to beg city and state officials to release as many vulnerable inmates as possible. March 28, 2020, marked a grim milestone. Patrick Estell Jones, 49, became the first individual in BOP custody to die of COVID-19. He was serving a sentence in a low-security facility for a non-violent crack cocaine offense. April 5 marked the first COVID-19 related death of a person incarcerated in a New York City jail––a person who was held on a parole violation for which the Legal Aid Society had requested immediate release.
Advocates, community leaders, public health experts, and many public officials have called for immediate action to reduce the spread of the virus to those who are incarcerated and their families, to those who work in correctional and detention facilities, and to the community at large. Vendors, staff, corrections health care workers, and corrections officers coming into and leaving the facilities face considerable risks of infection themselves, and of spreading the infection to others they come in contact with outside the facilities. People released from incarceration are more likely to be homeless or housed in shelters or transitional facilities that themselves pose serious risks of infection.
The exigencies of this situation require public officials to respond with uncharacteristic speed, decisiveness, and humanity under conditions of uncertainty.
Legal remedies for reducing incarceration are key, many falling within the discretion of executive officials and judges. The United States Attorney General has the authority, under the CARES Act, to allow the Bureau of Prisons “to transfer many more people to the relative safety of home confinement.” Corrections Commissioners have the power to remove incarcerated individuals from their place of confinement in case of contagious disease. Courts have the power to (1) order the release of anyone who does not present a greater danger to themselves or others than they would if they were infected, and (2) radically decrease the number of people being sent into incarceration who don’t require immediate confinement. Prosecutors can exercise their power by not seeking incarceration of people who do not present an imminent threat. Governors and mayors can exercise their power to grant release or clemency. Although some public officials have taken steps to respond to the crisis in time to minimize these extreme harms, many have yet to take the steps necessary to avoid irreparable harm to individuals and families, including death.
The crisis has also led government agencies to substitute online or telephone interactions for in-person interactions. To cope with the crisis, agencies are using methods to maintain access to benefits or meet community supervision requirements that do not require people to come into the office, and that could hold promise as a way to minimize the negative impact of bureaucratic requirements on people’s ability to pursue employment and education.
In addition to those legal remedies, services and supports are necessary for people when they do get released from prison. Non-profit organizations supporting people upon reentry play a critical role in providing this kind of assistance. After release, individuals need access to information that they trust about COVID-19 and the protective measures minimizing its spread. They need a safe place where they can be sheltered, consistent with the requirements of their release. They need medical support, benefits, and services to sustain themselves, and to avoid spread of the infection. They need resources enabling them to survive. The crisis has revealed the inadequacies of the social safety net to provide these fundamental necessities.
This Report builds the case for demanding that public officials take necessary action to avoid a public health disaster. It will also lay the foundation for longer term efforts to build a more humane, equitable, and just criminal legal system.
A growing group of individuals and organizations have been compiling information and resources related to the impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated individuals. Much of that information has focused on efforts to influence public officials to release people from prisons and jails, and avoid incarceration in the first place. That information, included in this Report, builds the case for demanding that public officials take necessary action to avoid a public health disaster. It will also lay the foundation for longer term efforts to build a more humane, equitable, and just criminal legal system.
There is less coordinated information geared toward individuals and families contending with these overwhelming challenges, mostly without legal representation.This Report pulls together information from reentry organizations, advocacy groups, public health sources, law schools, public agencies, and other sources, and steers readers to websites and organizations providing that information. The Report will be updated throughout the pandemic, and will connect individuals and organizations to the best available resources. The Report also highlights the woeful inadequacy of the current patchwork of legal and social responses and the reliance on an under-funded network of nonprofit advocacy groups and service providers. It highlights the importance of organizations and coalitions with “inside-out” leadership by people who have experienced incarceration in providing information, knowledge, and ability to respond quickly and effectively to urgent needs. Finally, it provides avenues for advocacy and systems change that will be required for months and years to come. Hopefully the mobilization of concern and response needed to address the COVID-19 crisis will be sustained after the direct crisis has subsided, and will lay the foundation for more fundamental systemic change needed to address the inequities and injustices that contribute to the devastating impact of COVID-19.