Friday News Roundup: Protecting Our Most Vulnerable

Friday News Roundup latest news

This week in the news: As the WHO declares the coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic, many are asking what measures are being taken to protect the health and welfare of justice-involved and incarcerated populations as well as staff, correctional officers, public defenders, and others working in the justice system, and more. 


The Coronavirus Could Spark a Humanitarian Disaster in Jails and Prisons

As the number of people diagnosed with the coronavirus starts to creep up in states around the country, fears are rightfully sparking about the impact of this outbreak on a critically vulnerable group of people: those incarcerated in our jails and prisons. The danger of infection is high in these crowded, unsanitary facilities — and the risk for people inside and outside of them is exacerbated by the “churn” of people being admitted and released at high rates. For example, in Florida alone, more than 2,000 people are admitted and nearly as many are released from county jails each day. (Dharia, Slate, March 11, 2020) 

Indiana Advocates Call on Governor to Release Elderly and Infirm Prisoners as Coronavirus Spreads

Advocates in Indiana are calling on Governor Eric Holcomb to release aging and infirm people from the state’s prisons, as jails and prisons across the country brace for the effects of the coronavirus. The suggested policy is that the governor either provides all vulnerable people with medical furlough, which is a temporary release from jail or prison to seek medical treatment, or begin approving compassionate release for as many people in prison as possible. More than 100 people signed an open letter to the governor sent last Friday, including advocate leaders, formerly incarcerated people, prison workers, and volunteers. (Vaughn, The Appeal, March 10, 2020)

SC Prisons, Mental Health Facilities Prepare for Possible Coronavirus Cases

As cases of COVID-19 pop up across South Carolina, state agencies that care for residents across the state have prepared for possible outbreaks in their own facilities, extending the same precautions the agency is using to prevent the spread of flu in impacted facilities to Corrections facilities statewide. The state departments of Corrections, Juvenile Justice, and Mental Health have been working with health officials to take precautions such as offering those incarcerated flu shots, giving dorms and other frequently used areas extra cleanings, and making sure that people incarcerated, visitors, and staff have access to hand sanitizer. They are encouraging visitors who think they might be sick to stay home. (Bohatch, The State, March 10, 2020)

When Purell is Contraband, How Do You Contain Coronavirus?

Hand sanitizer is often contraband because of the high alcohol content and the possibility for abuse (the alcohol can be separated out from the gel). Other Center for Disease Control recommendations, like covering mouths and regularly washing hands, can be difficult. Prisons and jails are large communities where a sicker-than-average population is crammed into close quarters, where healthcare can be shoddy, and medical providers are often understaffed. In an infectious disease outbreak, correctional facilities often respond with the same set of tools: lockdowns, solitary confinement, and visitation restrictions. (Blakinger, Schwartzapfel, The Marshall Project, March 6, 2020)

Politics and Voting Rights

What Do We Really Know About the Politics of People Behind Bars?

The Marshall Project and Slate conducted a first-of-its-kind political survey inside prisons and jails across the country. As criminal justice is a campaign issue and many states are restoring voting rights to those convicted of felonies, it heard from more than 8,000 of people incarcerated across the country for their opinions on criminal justice reform, which political party they identify with and which presidential candidate they’d support. Their answers could  surprise you. (Lewis, Shen, Flagg, The Marshall Project, March 11, 2020)

Voting Behind Bars: Cook County’s Huge Jail Becomes a First-Time Polling Precinct

For the first time, Cook County Jail will be its own polling precinct in this month’s upcoming primary election. More than four decades after the Supreme Court upheld the right to vote for people in pretrial detention, many Americans remain blocked from exercising that right because states don’t have procedures in place to allow access. Illinois has a new law requiring all jails to ensure that some 20,000 pretrial detainees have an opportunity to vote, absentee or via actual machines depending on size. (Mulcahy, The Washington Post, Chicago, March 6, 2020)

Juvenile Justice

Supreme Court to Consider When Juveniles May Get Life Without Parole

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to decide whether judges must determine that juvenile offenders are incorrigible before sentencing them to die in prison, the latest in a series of cases on the constitutionality of harsh punishments for youths who commit crimes before they turn 18. The case, Jones v. Mississippi, concerns Brett Jones, who was 15 at the time he killed his grandfather. Other cases already granted Jones a resentencing hearing, where he was again sentenced to life without parole. The question is still whether life without parole for crimes committed by juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment. (Liptak, The New York Times, Washington, March 9, 2020)