The Coronavirus Has Reached Jails and Prisons — But You Can Still Help

The first case of coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, in the U.S. was reported almost two months ago. Since then, the number of cases in the country has rapidly climbed, reaching more than 13,000 as of March 19.

And while anyone can become infected with the coronavirus, certain groups are more at-risk if they do become infected, health experts say. In particular, people over the age of 60 and people who have compromised immune systems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people avoid exposure to the virus by frequently and thoroughly washing their hands and by avoiding close contact with others, especially with people who are ill. However, people incarcerated in jails and prisons are largely unable to follow these recommendations, and many have serious health conditions. Additionally, incarcerated people are typically housed in close quarters and lack access to quality health care. Hand sanitizer is considered contraband in prisons, while soap may not be widely available and may have to be purchased, leaving incarcerated people vulnerable to the ongoing global pandemic.

Earlier this week, Walter Ogrod, a 55-year-old on death row in Pennsylvania, developed COVID-19 symptoms, prompting his lawyers to file an emergency motion to see him released and transferred to a hospital. Ogrod has spent almost 28 years in prison for a murder in which the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office says he is “likely innocent.”

His lawyers told Newsweek that he is showing “life-threatening signs of COVID-19” and that the prison is “unable to provide the treatment that he needs.”

Their statement echoes the concerns that public defenders, advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations have been expressing for weeks about the potentially devastating impact of the virus on incarcerated people.

Already, states and counties have taken varying approaches to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Cook County Jail in Illinois released several detainees considered to be “highly vulnerable” to the virus, and Cuyahoga County Jail in Ohio has released hundreds of detainees — releasing them on bonds, placing them on probation, or sentencing them to time-served or community service — to reduce its incarcerated population. Prisons in Texas, Florida and California, however, have taken the opposite approach, limiting or completely suspending visitations and restricting the movement of prisoners.

The Innocence Project has advocated for the release of as many people as possible to help reduce the number of people who will be impacted by COVID-19 outbreaks behind bars and has advocated for access to COVID-19 testing, prevention and medical care for those who remain incarcerated. The Innocence Project has also advocated for incarcerated people to be able to call their families and attorneys for free during the pandemic.

There are a number of ways you can also get involved and support incarcerated people during this time. From signing petitions to advocating for better treatment of those who are incarcerated to donating to community bail funds that are helping to get people who can’t afford to make bail out of jail, these are some ways you can help while still staying home and doing your part to keep yourself and others safe.

Lend your voice to the cause.

  • Send a letter to the president, your governor, local prosecutors, sheriffs and other local elected officials to release incarcerated individuals who are elderly, medically vulnerable, or who have a year or less of their sentence left. Read more about what legal and policy experts at The Justice Collaborative are calling for, and find out how you can send these letters here.
  • Demand humane treatment and action from Gov. Cuomo for people in New York State prisons by signing Color of Change’s petition.
  • Sign this petition demanding free phone calls for people in prisons during this crisis.
  • Send a letter to your local jail asking them to make video and phone calls free for people in custody.

Donate.

  • Many people in jail have not yet been convicted of a crime, yet they are there simply because they cannot afford to pay bail. Community bail funds help to pay their bail on their behalf so they can be released and await trial at home. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing jail populations is one way to help fight the spread of the virus.
  • Donate to your local community bail fund. Check out the National Bail Fund Network’s comprehensive directory of bail funds by state to find a one near you.
  • Donate to the New York Parole Preparation Project. The organization is sending money directly to people in prison so they can purchase necessities from their local commissaries, including canned goods and soap, which can help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The New York Parole Preparation Project is also sending care packages with necessary items and raising money to cover the costs of phone calls and electronic messaging to enable those who are incarcerated to more easily communicate with people on the outside during this time.

Read more and spread awareness.

Follow these champions of change on Twitter for more updates: @injusticewatch, @southerncenter, @helenprejean, @colorofchange, @scotthech, @BrooklynDefenders, @RDunhamDPIC

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