Anna Terwiel: Protect our community by letting people out of jail 

  • In this Friday, July 13, 2018 file photo, inmates pass the time within their cell block at the Twin Falls County Jail in Twin Falls, Idaho. Pat Sutphin/The Times-News via AP

Published: 3/26/2020 4:16:34 PM

As we know, COVID-19 has arrived in western Massachusetts. We must take exceptional measures now to slow the spread of the virus. Gov. Charlie Baker has already issued a stay-at-home advisory. We must also immediately step up efforts to release as many people as possible from the Hampshire County Jail in Northampton.

As the American Civil Liberties Union has documented, jails and prisons are powder kegs for the virus: People are packed closely together, deprived of control over their interactions with others, and typically have limited control over personal hygiene.

In addition, many incarcerated people have disabilities and other health issues that make them vulnerable to the virus. An outbreak of COVID-19 in the Hampshire County Jail would be a public health disaster for incarcerated people, the correctional officers and others who work at the jail and the broader community. Remember that Cooley Dickinson Hospital is already facing critical shortages of equipment.

Efforts to reduce the jail population are underway. Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan’s office is reviewing the cases of people held on bail “with the goal of identifying individuals whose release would not endanger the lives and safety of the general public or pose a significant flight risk.”

Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane is similarly “reviewing our current (jail) population, pre-trial and sentenced, especially those age 60 and older, or have serious pre-existing medical conditions.”

At the state level, an emergency bill is currently being considered to shrink jail and prison populations in this crucial time.

We must support these efforts and urge Sullivan, Cahillane and other officials to expand them. Early release, expanded use of parole, and furloughs are just some of the ways we can reduce our jail population before it is too late.

Who should be released? Most initiatives focus on older adults and people with underlying health conditions that place them at greater risk from COVID-19. The network Fair and Just Prosecution also recommends immediately releasing people who are within six months of completing their jail sentence and those who are incarcerated for technical violations of probation and parole, unless their release would pose “a serious risk to the physical safety of the community.”

It makes sense to start with these groups, but really, we should release anyone we can. In the context of this pandemic (and quite possibly in other contexts, too), our collective safety is best protected by decarceration.

When people are released from prison, we must ensure that their basic needs for housing, food and medical care are met. Doing so will be a challenge, but in some ways, the crisis can help. We could follow the lead of other countries and transform empty hotels into temporary shelters, for instance. We will be much better off strengthening our social safety net than trying to manage an outbreak of COVID-19 in Hampshire County Jail.

Please help shrink our jail population now by signing a petition at change.org, or by contacting your local and state officials directly.

Anna Terwiel teaches at Trinity College and lives in Northampton.


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