Should “criminals” be left in prison to die of Covid-19? Some say yes

By Sandy . . . “Prisoner release schemes,” pronounces the heading of a piece by Stacy Washington in a Project 21 publication, “are total nonsense.”

In this opinion she is joined by many state officials who, in spite of dire health warnings from the medical community, severely limit those eligible for early release or compassionate release to escape the almost certain ravages of Covid-19 as it rips through jails and prisons. Those with sexual offense convictions are almost universally the first to be excluded, based on the label alone. Texas governor Greg Abbott is currently embroiled in a battle with the federal courts over his refusal to release low-risk, pre-trial detainees. These are, primarily, folk who have not been convicted of the crime for which they are incarcerated but cannot afford the bail to be released.

Ms. Washington, in her tirade against the release of any prisoner during this health crisis, oversimplifies her arguments to the point of the ridiculous.

We can’t let them out, she says. They are in jail or prison because they couldn’t follow society’s rules. What makes us think they will follow rules about staying at home and social distancing?

Ms. Washington, we aren’t suggesting the doors be thrown open and no monitoring be in place. Any number of legal restraints, including home confinement and electronic monitoring, are available to the justice system in cases where there is legitimate need.

Playing the emotion card and exhibiting “us versus them” mentality, she uses the term “criminals” repeatedly: “. . . doing the unthinkable: freeing criminals.” “. . . making the quarantine worse by releasing criminals back into our midst.” “Americans [would] then have to take in their criminal relatives on top of having reduced income. . .” “What is in the best interest of criminals is to remain in prison. . .”

Many of the individuals being released are awaiting trial. Has the presumption of innocence until a conviction is rendered fallen by the wayside? Are people correctly termed “criminals” before they have a criminal conviction? And even though the legal justice system doesn’t like to admit it, some of those behind bars are innocent, no more deserving of being labeled a criminal than, presumably, Ms. Washington.

She cites the case of R. Kelly, a singer, delighting in the court’s refusal to release him on bond due to Covid-19. Kelly is awaiting trial. Although he has previous convictions, he has not been convicted of the charges for which he is currently being held, which is also the case of many others who are refused release.

She further states of Kelly that, in being denied release, he is also “. . . rightly denied the opportunity to reoffend.”

Is Ms. Washington physic? Does she know that, on release, he will reoffend? Or is she making a broad and unwarranted assumption?

Domestic violence reports are up from 10% to 30%, states Ms. Washington.

This was noted early on in this crisis, before incarcerated persons were being released. This is the result of fear for income and for health situations, of tensions raised by children being underfoot all day rather than at school, and of people being together continually who probably shouldn’t be together at all. Ms. Washington is being ingenuous if not downright deceptive in her inferences, made with no hint of proof, that it is the result of early and compassionate releases from jails and prisons.

Prisons can be made safe, she argues. Just devise schedules and put in more hand sanitizer, and those in prison will be as safe from the disease as those on the outside.

If it were that simple, Ms. Washington, would it not have been done? If it were that simple, would an Ohio prison, possibly the only one in the nation to test everyone, have found that 73% of their inmate population and over 100 staff members have the Coronavirus? Would both the medical director and the head warden at a Louisiana prison have died from the virus?

Were her ill-chosen and unsupported reasons not sufficient to make clear her opinion on the topic of doing what every health official dealing with Covid-19 suggests, Ms. Washington spells it out for us: “So which prisoners if any should be permitted release? None.”

Ms. Washington, this is the kindest I can be to you: If you ever find yourself in a position where your life is at serious risk, and there is something that can be done to help ameliorate that risk, I hope whoever is tasked with deciding whether to do it or not has more humanity and compassion in his or her heart than you.

Sandy Rozek

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Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.