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Advocates press Governor Raimondo to release more inmates from prison in response to pandemic



It’s a public health crisis and we know it’s a ticking time bomb waiting to happen. We want her to start with the most vulnerable inside and continue until we get our loved ones.

In response to Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo releasing 52 incarcerated people from the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, a coalition of 35 community organizations, faith leaders, and elected officials held a car protest at the Rhode Island State House demanding the Governor address the health and safety of incarcerated people. Advocates are calling for the release of incarcerated people, “starting with the most medically vulnerable and those with less than a year left on their sentence.”

Over one hundred cars circled the Rhode Island State House, honking horns and decked in signs. Simultaneously, community leaders addressed participants via a virtual rally, available for viewing on Facebook.

Governor Raimondo responded to the protest during her daily televised COVID-19 press briefing. Capitol TV host Margie O’Brien read the question put in by UpriseRI. O’Brien began by acknowledging the protest and the honking horns outside the State House.

“For the folks that joined us from the very beginning,” said O’Brien, “you might have heard car horns in the background and that’s what Steve Ahlquist is referring to and he asks this question from Never Again Action: 52 people were released from the ACI. Over a hundred people were honking outside the State House, calling on you, Governor, to use your executive power to free prisoners and ensure safe conditions on the inside. Can you do more?”

“I did hear the horns circling the State House and I appreciate their right to protest,” said Governor Raimondo. “I am not, however, going to use my executive authority to free all the people at the ACI. What I have done is released a certain number of them who were about 90 days away from release anyway and that’s enabled us to do better social distancing inside the ACI. What we have done is we’re in daily contact with the medical staff there to make sure we’re ramping up testing, make sure we’re doing our best to provide PPE, doing our very best to clean the facility – and we will continue to do that. And as testing gets better and as treatments get better, we’ll make sure that the most vulnerable everywhere, including in the ACI, will be the beneficiaries of that.”

Prison health experts have cautioned that the release of only 52 inmates is not enough. In a recent interview, Dr Josiah Rich, director of the Brown School of Public Health Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights stated, “We need the judiciary and executive branches to work together to release all that they safely can as quickly as possible to delay and minimize these predictable and avoidable catastrophes.”

Outside the State House, Media spoke with Cherie Cruz, from the Formerly Incarcerated Union of Rhode Island.

“It’s a public health crisis and we know it’s a ticking time bomb waiting to happen,” said Cruz. “So we want her to start with the most vulnerable inside and continue until we get our loved ones.”

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Here are statements from leaders from some of the organizations in the coalition:

Garren Jansezian, an organizer with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, stated “The ACI has facilities to produce some goods, making cloth masks. While prisoners have been tasked to work in those facilities for subminimum wages, they are not allowed to wear masks or gloves. In fact, they’re punished for wearing makeshift masks.”

John Prince, an organizer with Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) shared “Elderly folks need to be released as soon as possible. Same with minimum security where there are 4-5 people in a room. That’s not separation. There isn’t adequate medical staff in the prison, and they still do not have free healthcare in the prison. I know because I’ve been there.”

Justice Gaines, an organizer with the Providence Youth Student Movement noted that “The DOC currently charges copays for medical care in the ACI. All health fees should be waived. No one should be forced to pay for medical care during this crisis.”

Brad Brockmann, Professor at the Brown School of Public Health and the former Executive Director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, noted that “We know that this is a particularly vulnerable population. We know health is a function of socio-economic status among other things. The individuals we incarcerated tend to be marginalized or particularly vulnerable… which makes them particularly vulnerable to COVID.”

Organizers also expressed concern regarding conditions inside the ACI. “It’s not fair to subject human beings to any kind of suffering that is life threatening. They’re not sentenced to death. I was in there with people who had extremely minor infractions. Those are the kind of people being subjected to COVID 19 if it enters the prison,” said Ryan Callahan, a formerly incarcerated community member.

About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.