Guest column Lois Ahrens: The coronavirus: A jail or prison sentence should not be a death sentence

  • Lois Ahrens Gazette file photo

Published: 3/19/2020 8:00:21 PM
Modified: 3/19/2020 8:00:11 PM

According to the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association, in January there were 4,526 people who are convicted of nothing and being held pretrial and 3,095 people sentenced to jail.

Most are there only because they cannot afford to make bail. People in jails often enter with compromised immune systems. Many people on probation are returned to jail because they have violated a condition of probation like missing a meeting, not paying a fee or testing positive for dirty urine.

Many people in jail are there for a few days, weeks or months resulting in a potentially dangerous flow of the coronavirus from jail to communities. The weekly count sheet for March 2 details that there are 7,368 people in Massachusetts state prisons. Because of the extreme sentencing of the last 30 years, the state prison population is aging. Many people have untreated chronic health issues. Almost 1,000 are over 60 and more than 220 are over 70.

If you are thinking you don’t know anyone who is incarcerated or who works in a jail or prison and that this doesn’t affect you, I urge you to think again. All incarcerated people live in extremely close proximity. They’re locked together in small cells or pods, eating communally, sharing toilets and showers.

Closed institutions like prisons and jails are known to be incubators, aggravators and transmitters of infectious diseases, not only within in them, but to the wider community since guards, staff and others move in and out throughout the day and night. (Visitors are no longer allowed in jails and prisons in Massachusetts.)

The Governor and the DOC and sheriffs must provide people with a minimum of 20 minutes of free calls a day. This is especially important during this time of no visits and high anxiety.

To not further increase the coronavirus pandemic, steps must be taken now to significantly decrease the number of people who are incarcerated. Here are actions which should be taken immediately.

We must demand that Carol Mici, the commissioner of the DOC, and all sheriffs mandate screening of all people entering prisons and jails. And that free soap and paper towels are provided as well as hand sanitizer, comprehensive sanitation and cleaning. Medical care must be provided with no copays.

The DOC and sheriffs must prepare to quarantine and, when necessary, hospitalize ill prisoners. Sheriffs and the DOC must circulate educational materials that clearly state the measures prisoners can take to minimize their risk of contracting or spreading the virus in written materials in English and Spanish as well as any other necessary languages.

Commissioner of Probation Edward Dolan must institute policies for probation officers to stop violating people for technical violations. They must suspend the use of electronic monitoring. In-person parole and probation visits must be suspended and all probation and parole fees waived. People being held in jails and prisons for technical violations should be released.

The governor should order the release of all people with six months or less left to serve on their sentence, whether in a House of Correction or in the DOC.

Release all people only because they cannot afford bail. Jails in Cleveland, Los Angeles and San Francisco are doing this now.

Release all pregnant women.

Adopt cite and release policies for offenses for people who are incarcerated, which pose no immediate physical threat to the community.

The governor must instruct Gloriann Moroney, Parole Board chair, for the parole board to immediately start paroling people eligible for parole and those that they do parole be released now rather than waiting for months to be released.

The governor, in line with the recent Supreme Judicial Court decision, must instruct the DOC to begin releasing people on medical parole/“compassionate release” who are ill and dying. Further, release incarcerated people who pose no threat to the community who are older than 60 with significant health conditions, such as respiratory illnesses, cancer, diabetes and disabilities

A plan and immediate implementation to release people from jails and prison will help contain the virus for people who are incarcerated and to staff at jails and prisons, and our community. A jail or prison sentence should not be a death sentence.

Lois Ahrens is the founding director of The Real Cost of Prisons Project. A national organization based in Northampton.
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