COVID-19 is a public health crisis that we haven’t faced in generations. While the most vulnerable people in our communities- whether they be elderly, chronically ill and immunocompromised, or poor and working class- are the most threatened, the virus does not discriminate. All of us have already been impacted as our state goes into lockdown and we all begin practices of social distancing and isolation. Given what’s happened in Italy and countries across the world, it’s clear that our economic system and healthcare infrastructure are both at risk of total collapse as they’re put to a test they’ve never experienced before. We need public officials to put politics aside and take decisive action to protect our lives.
And right now, the US incarceration system represents a massive threat to the health and safety of every person in this country, not just those who are currently incarcerated. The tight confines and communal spaces of jails and prisons make social distancing an absolute impossibility, and have limited resources for sanitation. Bret Grote, Legal Director of the Abolitionist Law Center, states, “The prime directive to people across the country and across the world now is social distancing. This is impossible within jails and prisons.”
The threat of a COVID-19 outbreak in our jails and prisons isn’t a question of “if”, but “when”- and such an outbreak would be impossible to contain or even address.This would undermine all other efforts to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic, completely overwhelming our County’s medical infrastructure and drying up public coffers in efforts to respond to the aftermath.
And for those locked up in the jail-most of whom are inside for minor and non-violent offences or are awaiting sentencing pre-trial- the consequences would be dire.
As an ACLU lawyer in North Carolina put it, “Keeping people in jail will be a death sentence.” And what does it say about us if in the United States of America, a country founded on principles of equality and justice for all, on inalienable human rights, if we of all nations allow people in jail to languish and die of this plague as a result of the inaction of our elected leadership?
Our entire country is under threat thanks to the inaction of President Donald Trump who refused to prepare us for the impact this virus would have on all of us- we look to the elected officials of Chester County to heed the warning of medical experts and not do the same.
We’re calling on District Attorney Deb Ryan, President Judge John L. Hall, and other County officials to save our lives and decarcerate Chester County Jail. Through taking the steps outlined in the demands listed below, we would effectively be limiting the intake of new inmates and releasing those who are at high-risk for COVID-19 and low-risk of harm to the community, with instructions and support to self-isolate for two weeks so we can combat this epidemic. We also ask for transparency around efforts that are being made to address this issue so the community can work alongside our elected officials to protect our health and safety.
These aren’t radical requests- this is an unprecedented crisis that requires an unprecedented response. We’ve seen public officials from both Parties taking action across the nation to decarcerate jails because of the danger they represent to public health (references at bottom). Our communities are made less safe by housing individuals in these institutions where COVID-19 can so easily spread.
We need our elected leaders to take this moment as an opportunity to stand as Community Protectors and #RescueChesCo. There will be those who use this as an opportunity to pit victims and offenders against one another, but this virus doesn’t discriminate. We aren't negotiating the safety of some for the safety of others. We are all at risk so long as people remain incarcerated through this pandemic and need to find alternatives that keep our community safe, whether it be from COVID-19 or violence.
We’re calling upon our leaders to put politics and questions about the next election to the side and be bold enough to take the action necessary to save our lives. To do anything less would be to put each and every one of us in danger.
The Chester County Court System should:
- Immediately lift/postpone imposition of detainers of every individual held on alleged probation violations based on new charges or for technical violations;
- Immediately modify bond of those held pretrial to nonmonetary and/or “release on their own recognizance” (‘ROR’);
- Cease parole and probation revocation proceedings and terminate long tails;
- Release all individuals with less than 6 months left in their sentence;
- Release all individuals incarcerated for misdemeanors, whether pretrial or serving a sentence;
- Release all individuals incarcerated for drug possession, sex work, and other nonviolent offenses;
- Release all elderly individuals (over 50) and those at high risk of vulnerability, including but not limited those with respiratory conditions, heart conditions, diabetes, cancer, or other autoimmune diseases;
- Release all pregnant individuals;
- Transfer all non-releasable individuals to less restrictive forms of custody, including electronic monitoring and house arrest, instructing them to self-isolate for 2 weeks;
- Review individuals on probation or otherwise confined to halfway houses and release those individuals to home confinement automatically;
- Terminate in-person reporting for those on pre- or post-trial supervision indefinitely;
- Allocate funding to provide for hotel voucher program and basic survival needs for those released without a housing plan;
- Provide Naloxone and a handoff for medication assisted treatment upon release for individuals coping with addiction;
The District Attorney of Chester County should:
- Postpone the convening of grand juries;
- Affirmatively support and not oppose the above-mentioned motions and petitions for relief;
- Withdraw and drop all pending charges for drug possession, sex work, and other nonviolent offenses.
Law enforcement agencies throughout Chester County should:
- Recall all pending warrants (that have not been served/executed);
- Delay dates of voluntary surrender for incarceration sentences as requested by defense;
- Immediately cease arresting individuals for all offenses not directly implicating public safety or an individual’s physical well-being;
- Immediately cease arrests on warrants for probation violations — technical and otherwise;
- Avoid new bookings into the jail at all costs, limiting incarceration for only the most immediate and severe instances of risk to public safety.
- Given the similarly dangerous conditions in immigrant detention centers and those jails and prisons that contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), we demand that Chester County Jail and county criminal justice officials NOT facilitate the detention of undocumented immigrants or the transfer of them to ICE custody.
County government and the jail administration should immediately:
- Issue an emergency order making phone calls or video visitations free for individuals detained at CCP ;
- Ensure all incarcerated people have unlimited and free access to: soap, hand sanitizer, hygiene products, showers and laundry service, NOT monetized through commissary;
- Provide cell sanitization services for those remaining in the facility at least one time daily;
- Provide free access to books and other reading and writing materials to all individuals incarcerated at the jail;
- Provide additional commissary items at-, below-, or no-cost to all individuals, to boost morale during the trying times ahead;
- Facilitate the use of video visitation, including confidential video visitations for attorney visits.
We call on our colleagues both in the Office of the Public Defender and in the private criminal defense bar to begin to file motions and petitions, in a pro bono capacity, for all individuals held in Chester County Jail under a probation detainer, unaffordable or unjustifiably restrictive bond, and serving long probation or parole terms.
We are demanding that all governmental agencies collaborate on this initiative in order to protect public health. Limiting the spread of COVID-19 — and its mortality rate — requires that we release as many of our neighbors as possible, as they are part of our families and communities. Protecting them and our greater community from avoidable harm go hand in hand, and this must be our shared imperative.
We are calling on other organizations and community leaders in Chester County to endorse and circulate this statement and help shape the course of the response to COVID-19 in our community.
To sign on to the statement, fill out the form below or sign on here.
Food & Water Watch
Vonie Long, President USW Almagamated Local 1165 Chester County
Cassie Grainge, Defender at Philadelphia Public Defenders Office
Nydea Graves, Coatesville City Council-At Large Candidate
Abolitionist Law Center
Alison Updyke Neff, West Chester University
Julie Tennille, West Chester University
Dr. Meg Panichelli, West Chester University
Chelsea L. Shover, PhD, Epidemiologist and Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Stanford University
Brie Radis, West Chester University
Pete DiMaio, Coatesville Community Advocate
Noel Vest, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow and formerly incarcerated scholar, Stanford University School of Medicine
Jennifer Lopez, Homeless Family Advocate
Pier Cicerelle, West Chester University
Dean Johnson, West Chester University
David Phillips, Family First Painters
Karen Johnson, Chester County Stands Up
Casey Bohrman, Associate Professor of Graduate Social Work at West Chester University
Elgin Bailey, Chester County Stands Up
The following are only a few examples of Public Officials releasing inmates in light of COVID-19: