The American Ethical Union (AEU) calls upon federal, state and local authorities to expand the implementation of compassionate release policies for sick and elderly people from correctional facilities and immigrant detention centers and to ensure that prisoners are given high priority for receiving vaccinations for COVID-19.
The United States criminal justice system incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world. Our country also leads the world in the length of prison sentences, resulting in the incarceration of progressively more elderly individuals. Moreover, the harsh conditions faced by people who are incarcerated, with many spending months or years in solitary confinement or facing violent abuse from other prisoners or from those who guard them, have compounded the impact of imprisonment. As the conditions in prisons are traumatic, imprisoned people tend to age at a faster rate than those not incarcerated and frequently develop severe health issues.
These concerns are compounded by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Marshall Project, “by Dec. 1, at least 227,333 people in prison had tested positive for the illness, a 7 percent increase from the week before, though new cases may have been undercounted due to limited testing in some states over the Thanksgiving holiday.” The report indicates that prison staff have also been hard hit: “Since the start of the pandemic, more than 56,496 prison staff members have tested positive—with new cases at an all-time high the week of Nov. 24.” Many of those incarcerated are elderly and/or have serious health issues that put them at significant risk for infection.
We are saddened by reports of COVID-19 infections rapidly spreading within prison systems, where unhygienic conditions are rampant, adequate medical care is scarce and social distancing is impossible, and we applaud efforts to bring about the compassionate release of vulnerable prisoners from state and federal detention facilities. Those efforts fall far short of what is needed, however. While current standards for compassionate release vary from state to state, 49 states and the federal prison system make it possible for individuals who are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses and are elderly or have severe health issues to be released from prison. Unfortunately, the great majority of those who are eligible are not released.
According to a Marshall Project report, requests for compassionate release are rarely approved: “Of the 10,940 federal prisoners who applied for compassionate release from March through May, wardens approved 156. Some wardens, including those at Seagoville in Texas and Oakdale in Louisiana, did not respond to any request in that time frame, according to the data, while others responded only to deny them all.”
That report looked only at the federal prisons and did not include the tens of thousands of individuals who are eligible to apply for compassionate release in state correctional facilities and detention centers, nor did it include individuals who were convicted of offenses not covered by the standards but who pose no risk to society. There is no recourse for these individuals but to remain in these dangerous conditions.
For the elderly and people with compromised health, remaining incarcerated may well amount to a death sentence. The continued incarceration of sick or elderly people under these conditions, as well as that of nonviolent offenders, serves no public safety purpose and undermines community efforts to minimize disease transmission. Our prisons and detention centers must do much more to make compassionate release a reality for the frail and elderly.
There is hope that the development of effective vaccines will lead to containment of the COVID-19 pandemic. We must, though, appreciate the extreme vulnerability of people in prisons and detention and ensure that they are given a high priority once vaccines are available. In an opinion letter to CBS News, social justice advocates Ashish Prashar and DeAnna Hoskins wrote: “As we approach 300,000 pandemic-related deaths in the United States, we can’t forget that the five largest Covid-19 clusters are in prisons. While federal officials say that corrections staff should receive high priority for a vaccine, they have not advocated for the 2.2 million individuals they care for daily.”
As we grapple with a deeply flawed criminal justice system during a global pandemic, the American Ethical Union advocates for the just and ethical treatment of imprisoned individuals. We call on federal, state and local governments to accelerate the processing of requests for compassionate release of at-risk prisoners from correctional facilities and immigrant detention centers and press for identifying those who are imprisoned as a high priority for receiving vaccination against COVID-19.