By Metyia Phillips
The Sentencing Project recently hosted a Zoom talk about current COVID-19 decarceration strategies used across the nation, ranging from mobilizing jail releases to providing personal protective equipment.
The Sentencing Project hosted the webinar over Zoom, entitled “Strategies To Reduce Incarceration During COVID-19.” During the webinar, there were four speakers: Checo Yancy, Christine Woody, David Singleton, and Sarah Ferber. They were from Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin, respectively. All four speakers talked about the initiatives that they are directing in their respective states to ensure prisoners are receiving fair treatment during the COVID-19 crisis.
The Sentencing Project is a nonprofit organization that focuses on criminal justice reform. The webinar was led by Nicole Porter who works for the Sentencing Project. She led the webinar by introducing the speakers and their backgrounds, going in order from Checo Yancy, to Christine Woody, to David Singleton, and lastly to Sarah Ferber. After each speaker gave their brief presentations and updates, Nicole facilitated questions from the audience and thanked us for coming.
The first speaker, Checo Yancy of Louisiana, is a former prisoner with a life term at Angola who is now the policy director with Louisiana’s Voters Engaged to Educate. He discussed his experience as a prisoner and how he knows first hand how the task of socially distancing is virtually impossible within the confines of prison.
His goal is to leave no one behind and support the leadership of formerly incarcerated activists like himself.
Checo and his organization are advocating for prisoners during COVID-19 by working with the Department of Corrections to get prisoners released and personal protective equipment for prisoners, because guards have them but they don’t. After receiving masks from donors, Checo also donated 8,000 masks to the Department of Corrections for prisoners.
The second speaker was Christine Woody of Missouri, a senior advocate with Empower Missouri.
Christine explained Empower Missouri is an organization that is over 100 years old, based in Jefferson City, and deals with state-level policy focusing on criminal justice, food security, and homelessness issues. Empower Missouri also meets once a week on Friday at 11 AM during Missouri’s Legislative Session, which lasts from January to May.
Christine and Empower Missouri are advocating for prisoners by supporting Missouri’s Smart Sentencing Coalition, mobilizing support for prison and jail release during the COVID-10 pandemic, and advocating for prisoners to be released to their homes. She also helped write letters to the Department of Corrections and Youth Services to help get juvenile prisoners released.
She also helped the state receive $11 million in funding from the Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG), which helps states and municipalities fund their law and criminal justice programs. The money for the grant will be used to help with funding for safety precautions in Missouri jails and prisons.
The next speaker was David Singleton of Ohio, an executive director with the Ohio Justice Policy Center. The Ohio Justice Policy Center focuses on the Beyond Guilt Initiative, which attempts to transform the punitive legal system by focusing on the humanity of those over-punished.
David and the Ohio Justice Policy are advocating for prisoners during COVID-19 by putting out recommendations for how jails can reduce their populations. For example, the jail in Hamilton County where he lives reduced its population from 1200 to 800, and similar things also happened in Cleveland.
On the other hand, the one federal prison in Ohio is made to house about 38,000 people but is currently housing over 40,000. David is also working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to get prisoners who are medically at risk transferred or sent home, and he’s also trying to speed up the process of getting cases looked at when a person is medically at risk.
The last speaker was Sarah Ferber of Wisconsin, an associate director for Wisconsin’s Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing. Sarah is also a formerly incarcerated organizer who supports leadership among local organizers, including centering the experience around justice-involved women.
Sarah and Wisconsin’s Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing have been advocating for prisoners during COVID-19 by writing a letter to the Department of Corrections to get medically at-risk prisoners released on compassionate release. She wrote a letter to the governor’s office asking for the same thing.
The Department of Corrections responded and said they would only release non-violent offenders with misdemeanors, leading to around 250 people being released statewide.
Sarah still wants more people to be released and is also working in conjunction with the ACLU to ensure there is enough personal protective equipment for prisoners across Wisconsin.
All four people in their four respective states are partnering with organizations to make sure that prisoners are being treated fairly during COVID-19. Although each person has made significant progress, none of their states is where it needs to be—and neither is the country.
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