Civil Rights

Rhode Island to stay the course on prison Covid outbreak

“…our focus is to support the Department of Corrections’ leadership, help ensure that there isn’t any increase in spread and make sure our inmates and staff remain protected…”
Photo for Rhode Island to stay the course on prison Covid outbreak

Published on December 11, 2020
By Steve Ahlquist

As the Covid pandemic tears though the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) in Cranston, and the advocates for and family members of those incarcerated demand greater efforts to protect residents and workers at these facilities, UpriseRI brought questions from various groups to Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo‘s weekly Covid press briefing. Questions were also addressed to Dr Nicole Alexander Scott, the director of the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH).

UpriseRI: With the outbreak at the ACI, people have been calling for lowering the population there. Dr Jennifer Clarke, the outgoing medical director said that efforts should be taken to reduce the prison population. What are your opinions on that?

Dr Nicole Alexander-Scott: We are aware of those thoughts. With the transition of the medical director at the RIDOC [Rhode Island Department of Corrections] RIDOH has been working closely to help ensure what’s needed to quell the outbreak there has been taking place. We meet regularly throughout the week. We support the RIDOC in the approaches that are taken to help minimize risk of spread. And RIDOC knows which units it’s acceptable to think through those practices and which are not.

So our focus is to support the Department of Corrections’ leadership, help ensure that there isn’t any increase in spread and make sure our inmates and staff remain protected.

UpriseRI: Right now RIDOC only updates the public once a week at most on Facebook. As part of the web update you just mentioned, could updates be made more often so that people have a better idea of what’s going on?

Dr Alexander-Scott: You always also, as press, have the opportunity to reach out to RIDOH and RIDOC. We can provide information as needed.

UpriseRI: This would be for people in the community, family members and such. Has anyone died at the ACI from Covid, do we know? There’s a lot of rumors coming out that people are dying. I’m hearing “bodies dropping” so I’m wondering if anyone has actually died.

Dr Alexander-Scott: That rumor is not a correct one. We are working closely with RIDOC and we do not have a scenario such as that.

UpriseRI: Lastly, a medical professional suggested that giving the incarcerated more time outside where spread of Covid is lower, perhaps using the National Guard to help supervise yard time, might be a good idea. Right now we’re keeping people inside, cramped up in small confinement where spread is high. But if we got them outside more, maybe that would help. What do you think of that idea?

Dr Alexander-Scott: Thank you for that. We are applying all measures that are effective and able to be applied within corrections.

UpriseRI: Governor, do you have any opinions on using your authority to lower the prison population? I’ve been told that under Rhode Island General Laws 42-56-18 you have the power to modify the criteria for reclassification and to temporarily grant parole, medical parole and temporary furloughs.

Governor Gina Raimondo: So first of all, I like the ideas you said before and I’ll look into both of them – both in terms of using the guard as well as transparency.

A few thoughts – I do not have that authority. I’m quite certain of that. Also, I think it’s important to recognize that we’re dealing with Max Security here. So earlier in the pandemic I did wok with the courts – the courts have the ability that you speak of – to encourage the early release of a small number of low level offenders who were within 30 or 60 day of release anyway.

This is different. These are in some cases violent offenders – much more serious crimes. Having said that, the courts have that power, not I, and I don’t think, given the circumstances of what we’re dealing with right now, it would be appropriate.

Here’s the video:

After the press conference Cherie Cruz with the Formerly Incarcerated Union of Rhode Island reached out with the following comment:

“The Governor had suggested when referring to the positive cases that “it’s simple why it’s happening, because people are just not following the rules”. This statement could not be any truer than at the ACI, and is apparent by the ballooning of positive cases. It was incredibly disappointing to hear from both the Governor and the RI Department of Health Director that there are no plans to step in to support actions that would ensure the safety and medical care of one of our most vulnerable populations – the incarcerated – many of who at the Intake Service Center have not yet been convicted of any crimes.

“But rather the Governor and Rhode Island’s top public health official continue to allow the wolf to guard the hen house, particularly without question or oversight. Throughout this pandemic they have shown a lack of any serious engagement with the issue and continue to ignore community members who have advocated for their loved ones. People who are incarcerated have rights to safety from this virus outlined by the CDC and adequate medical care, neither is happening. This lack of compassion or even knowledge of the issues behind those walls when responding to questions about the ACI made clear that they hadn’t engaged with the issues – since the beginning of this pandemic- in a serious way.”

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