Editorial & Opinion

State legislators call for action in response to prison Covid outbreak

“The CDC recommends social distancing, frequent hand washing, and the use of PPE to prevent the spread of this deadly, airborne virus. The close quarters and shared communal spaces inherent in the ACI facilities, and prison setting in general, make these precautions impossible and create an unnecessary health and safety burden on the population…”

Published on December 21, 2020
By Uprise RI

Dear Governor Raimondo, DOC Director Coyne-Fague, DOC Administrator of Classification Amado, Parole Board Chair Pisaturo, and AG Neronha,

As we face this unprecedented global pandemic, we are forced to confront the ways our prison system prevents many people, especially immunocompromised people, from protecting themselves and others from this deadly virus. Given the severe and deadly consequences of this virus, we must act now to address the impact COVID-19 is having on the population of people experiencing incarceration and a spike in COVID positive cases in the ACI. 

The CDC recommends social distancing, frequent hand washing, and the use of PPE to prevent the spread of this deadly, airborne virus. The close quarters and shared communal spaces inherent in the ACI facilities, and prison setting in general, make these precautions impossible and create an unnecessary health and safety burden on the population. These facilities cannot keep its population of people experiencing incarceration safe, especially those who are immunocompromised. In an effort to protect this population and those who work within this prison system, we need to decarcerate as many who are eligible as possible.  

Families and loved ones of people experiencing incarceration at the ACI and the Wyatt Detention Center are increasingly receiving calls and letters expressing urgent concern over the virus’s spread inside the RIDOC facilities–stories of immunocompromised inmates being kept with COVID-positive cellmates, of correctional officers refusing to wear CDC approved masks, and more. These are our constituents being forced into danger. We support the work of the Decarcerate Now Coalition* who has been calling for implementation of  sustainable solutions to ensure the health and safety of this community is not at increased risk.  These solutions will instill more trust and reassurance to families and friends with loved ones in these facilities: 

  • Develop and release on the RIDOC website a statement and plan outlining quarantine process for staff and incarcerated people who test positive 
  • Develop and release a formal process for family members to report information that contradicts RIDOC’s stated policies, either through the RIDOC website or using a designated RIDOC email contact
  • Provide multiple cloth masks for the population that is incarcerated and adequate soap and sanitation supplies to clean masks
  • Universal testing across the population, including asymptomatic people
  • Transparency of RIDOC COVID-19 data and reporting on the website and social media of RIDOC
  • The ACI to be considered a priority community for COVID-19 vaccination, with an informed consent or opt-out process for the population 

These are immediate actions that could save hundreds of lives in Rhode Island. It is our moral obligation to see that harm is not worsened by an already tragic pandemic, and that includes taking steps to reduce the numbers of people incarcerated at the ACI. 

AG Neronha: 

  • In alignment with the RI Public Defenders’ 12/1/20 petition to the courts, have prosecutors request the setting of personal recognizance bail—including in alleged violations of probation—except in extraordinary circumstances that must be enumerated on the record

RIDOC classification board:

  • Classify prisoners (1) within 6 months of release who have served at least 1/2 their sentence, or (2) who have served at least 3/4 of a sentence of six months or less, to community confinement. (§ 42-56-20.2; RIDOC Policy 15.01-6 (III)(T)(2)) (Exceptions: prisoners convicted of murder, 1st Deg Sexual Assault, and/or 1st Deg Child Molestation.)

RI Parole Board:

  • Grant parole to eligible prisoners who meet certain requirements (R.I.G.L. ch. 13-8).
  • Grant medical parole to terminally/severely ill prisoners when their treatment causes the state to “incur exorbitant expenses” (§ 13-8.1-4).

DOC Director:

Governor, use emergency powers to: 

  • Temporarily order prisoners released on parole, including medical parole.
  • Grant parole even to prisoners who would otherwise be ineligible for parole. (Once an emergency declaration is lifted, these would have to be reincarcerated pending a hearing before the parole board.)
  • Temporarily reclassify prisoners to community confinement, even those who would not otherwise be eligible for community confinement. (Once an emergency declaration is lifted, these prisoners could stay in community confinement if they otherwise meet eligibility requirements.)
  • Reinvest the funds earmarked for pre-release DOC discharge planners to support community based reentry planning and reentry services 

Decarcerate Now coalition includes: DARE’s Behind the Walls Committee, Black and Pink, Formerly Incarcerated Union, Never Again Action, ReclaimRI, Center for Justice, OpenDoors 

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  • Senator-Elect Tiara Mack, District 6
  • Senator Sam Bell, District 5     
  • Senator Ana Quezada, District 2
  • Senator-Elect Alana DiMario, District 36
  • Senator-Elect Meghan Kallman, District 15
  • Senator-Elect Jonathon Acosta, District 16
  • Senator-Elect Jeanine Calkin, District 30
  • Senator-Elect Cynthia Mendes, District 18 
  • Senator Bridget Valverde, District 35
  • Senator Gayle Goldin, District 3
  • Senator Joshua Miller
  • Representative Liana Cassar, District 66
  • Representative Teresa Tanzi, District 34
  • Representative-Elect David Morales, District 7
  • Representative Rebecca Kislak, District 4
  • Representative Raymond Hull, District 6
  • Representative-Elect Brianna Henries, District 64
  • Representative-Elect Leonela Felix, District 61
  • Representative-Elect Brandon Potter, District 16
  • Representative-Elect Jose F. Batista, District 12

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