By Nancy Martinez
On May 5, 2020, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts’ Seventh Congressional District published a letter addressed to the governors of California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York demanding governor-granted clemency and release of incarcerated populations from state prisons to protect them from COVID-19 and prevent thousands of deaths.
In the published letter to the governors of the five states hit most severely by COVID-19, congressmen and women, led by Pressley, demand the release of youth, elderly, and vulnerable populations, along with the release of any individuals with less than one year left of their sentence. These demands arise out of the increasing trajectory of infections reported within jails, prisons, and local correctional facilities.
Nevertheless, Pressley pleads for the leading governors to act swiftly and adequately: “As Governors, you have the power to take the immediate steps to avert further tragedy from taking root in our state corrections system.”
The letter addressed to Governors Gavin Newsom, J. B, Pritzker, Charlie Baker, Phil Murphy, and Andrew Cuomo, as well as to National Governors Association Chair and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, presented the current infection statistics of COVID-19 inside correctional facilities. There have been over 28,300 infections and 273 deaths among the incarcerated and staff members of these facilities. More so, according to the Marshall Project, there has been a 50 percent increase in infection rates in the last week. These statistics are expected to increase within the upcoming weeks.
Congresswoman Pressley urges governors to use their powers to decrease the populations in jails and prisons in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Pressley argues that, although the governors have acted in adequate manners for their local communities, they must not forget about the incarcerated population, and “the health of our nation depends on the health and safety of our most vulnerable communities particularly those in congregate settings… where physical distancing is all but impossible.”
Using estimates by the ACLU, the congresswoman adds that if there is not an immediate aggressive decarceration movement, 100,000 fatalities are predicted to be added to the nation’s overall death count. Evidence has shown that there has been some flattening effects to the growing infection curves in communities. On the other hand, the opposite can be said about correctional facilities. Testing is still very limited in these facilities and the number of reported cases continues to grow every day. Poor prison-regulated policies are playing a huge role in the increase of cases as the efforts to maintain social distancing lack enforcement.
According to Congresswoman Pressley, the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on Black and Brown communities are only magnified in correctional settings. Historical and structural racism has allowed COVID-19 to be especially devastating to prison populations.
According to a 2018 U.S Department of Justice study, Black and Latino populations account for nearly 50 percent of the total incarcerated population. Considering Blacks and Latinos have been most affected by COVID-19, the incarcerated population faces a lethal threat.
Regardless of the disproportionate demographics of prisons, the lack of action to release incarcerated people has resulted in preventable deaths. Placing incarcerated individuals in a higher risk of contamination also raises the risk to staff and their families in contracting the virus.
Collectively, with US Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jan Schakowsky, Barbara Lee, Nydia M. Velasquez, Karen Bass and US Senator Cory Booker, Congresswoman Pressley demands governors use their executive orders “to grant release of adults aged and older, medically vulnerable populations with underlying conditions such as HIV/AIDS, diabetes, asthma, and heart disease, pregnancy individuals, juveniles, and individuals with less than 1 year left on their sentence.”
Considering the five states in question account for 90 percent of the incarcerated population, the congress representatives deem this request as a necessity to avoid thousands of deaths, as opposed to the request being seen as a preventable measure.
With the ease into the reopening of California, it is highly unlikely Governor Newsom will sign any new motions demanding the release of more incarcerated individuals.
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