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OpEd: DARE speaks out on COVID Crisis at the ACI

“It is clear that the denial of even the few comforts available to our loved ones was never part of a coherent, well thought out plan to keep them safe. The absolute negligence we are seeing now only highlights the cruelty our loved ones experienced these last nine months.”

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We are outraged and horrified to witness the COVID-19 outbreak in Rhode Island prisons. This is a preventable disaster caused by the deliberate negligence of Rhode Island “leadership” and longstanding disregard for the lives of incarcerated people. From the beginning of the pandemic, over and over again, community members, public health experts, and organizers called on the Governor, DOH, RIDOC, and the AG to take the recommended precautions. And yet we are currently watching as hundreds of our incarcerated community members–disproportionately Black, brown, and low-income people–have become infected and disease is rapidly spreading inside a place already notorious for abusive conditions and substandard healthcare. 

In coalition with many others, since March, DARE repeatedly called on the state to halt arrests, reduce the existing prison population, and provide testing and adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to incarcerated people. In March the Decarcerate Now Coalition sent a petition to the Governor, DOH, and RIDOC urging immediate implementation of these measures. In April we held a car and Zoom rally outside the statehouse. In May we organized a noise demonstration outside the ACI. In July we rallied outside the State House. In October we organized a protest theater action outside Providence City Hall. Throughout the pandemic, we and many other community members published op-eds and directly contacted Governor Raimondo, RIDOC Director Coyne Fague, DOH Director Alexander Scott, and AG Neronha with letters, emails, and phone calls requesting information and action. 

Our efforts were met with indifference and rote replies. The number of people detained pretrial actually climbed by 20% between April and October of this year. Roughly 800 Rhode Islanders who have not been convicted, or who are being held on probation or parole violations, remain indefinitely trapped at Intake as courts delay hearings and trials.  

There is no possible excuse for what has happened to our loved ones. They have been held in inhumanely restrictive conditions for nine months, with severely limited access to showers, phone calls, and time outside, without access to educational programming or video visitation with loved ones. We were told over and over again by RIDOC that these measures were necessary for their safety. Yet we continued to get reports long into the fall that the most basic recommended measures–such as providing prisoners with more than one mask and supplies to clean them–were not followed. We are now learning from family members that COs are returning to work a week after testing positive. That COs do not consistently wear their masks in common spaces and around prisoners. That prisoners testing positive or still showing symptoms are grouped together and put back into units and cells with those who are healthy, and simply told to stay six feet apart. 

It is clear that the denial of even the few comforts available to our loved ones was never part of a coherent, well thought out plan to keep them safe. The absolute negligence we are seeing now only highlights the cruelty our loved ones experienced these last nine months. 

We demand, again, that immediate action be taken to:

  1. Halt arrests and grant personal recognizance to limit the number of people trapped in Intake. 
  2. Reduce the prison population to control the spread of disease. Restore lost good time. Expedite parole hearings and release all eligible individuals. Utilize medical parole for all terminally ill, elderly, and immunocompromised individuals. Release all other eligible individuals into community confinement. 
  3. Recognize the ACI as a priority community for the COVID-19 vaccination, with an informed consent and opt-out process for the population. 
  4. Provide our loved ones with adequate PPE (masks, soap, hand sanitizer) as recommended by the CDC. 
  5. Regularly administer universal testing across the population, including asymptomatic people.
  6. Provide transparency and accountability to incarcerated people’s families. Publicly release a quarantine plan for staff and incarcerated people who test positive, as well as a formal process for family members to report noncompliance. Report daily COVID-19 numbers on the RIDOC website and social media, with the same level of documentation and transparency as that provided around every other Rhode Island population.

Prisons have always been a tool to control, terrorize, and exterminate our communities. But incarcerated people are not a disposable population. Their lives are precious. They are loved. And we will keep coming back until our heartbreak and our rage are felt by those who failed to protect them.