[Pnews] If Social Distancing Is Impossible in Prisons, People Should Be Freed

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Mar 20 11:34:16 EDT 2020


  If Social Distancing Is Impossible in Prisons, People Should Be Freed

Victoria Law - March 19, 2020

In early March, Michelle Tran drove 1,500 miles from her home in 
Wichita, Kansas, to visit her husband Thai at California’s Avenal State 

It’s a trek that Tran makes every 45 to 60 days. She typically spends a 
week in California so that she can visit her husband for two weekends. 
During the week, she visits family in Fresno and drives to Los Angeles 
to check on Thai’s mother, who is battling Stage IV cancer.

That first weekend, the couple sat at the small round tables in the 
prison’s visiting room. They were able to hold hands, hug, kiss and eat 
snacks from the prison’s vending machines. On Sunday, Tran ended their 
visit after two hours to drive to Sacramento for a Drop LWOP rally 
<https://droplwop.com/> urging lawmakers to change laws and end 
sentences of life without the possibility of parole. The couple planned 
to say their goodbyes during her visit the following weekend.

That visit never happened. On Wednesday, March 11, Tran received a memo 
announcing that, to stem possible exposure to COVID-19, or the novel 
coronavirus, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 
was canceling all visits until further notice 

“I traveled 1500 miles to see my husband for basically eight hours,” 
recalled Tran. Despite her disappointment, she understands the need for 
caution, especially in a prison like Avenal where men live in 
dormitories with 200 beds and in a prison system which has long had 
problems with inadequate, substandard and even life-threatening medical 

California is not the only prison system to cancel visits to stem 
possible exposure to COVID-19. Across the country, as health officials 
urge people to keep their distance and cities institute shutdowns of 
nonessential businesses and issue orders to shelter in place 
47 state prison systems, the federal prison system and Immigration and 
Customs Enforcement prisons have canceled in-person visits. As of March 
16, only Arkansas, Nebraska and Wyoming are still allowing visits in 
their state prisons.

“Given that social distancing has been the most effective preventive 
measure thus far for this rapidly spreading virus for which we have no 
vaccine, treatment or cure, it’s reasonable to believe that minimizing 
outside visitations can reduce the risk of transmission/exposure,” Lipi 
Roy, the former chief of addiction medicine for New York City’s jail 
system, told /Truthout/. “For the time being, we need to aggressively 
minimize exposure and optimize ALL preventive measures.”

But, she adds, the minimization or ban on visits should be temporary.

    *Social Distancing an Impossibility in Prisons*

Jack Beck, a correctional health expert and former director of the 
Prison Visiting Project at the Correctional Association of New York 
<https://www.correctionalassociation.org/about-cany/>, noted that 
suspending visits won’t prevent COVID-19 from entering state prisons. 
“In my view, the most likely way COVID-19 will enter prisons is through 
the jails,” he told /Truthout/. In 2018, over 19,000 people entered the 
New York state prison system 
<https://data.ny.gov/d/m2rg-xjan/visualization>. Many had previously 
been held in local jails where turnover and risks of exposure to 
COVID-19 as well as other viruses and diseases is high. “Even if they 
discover it [COVID-19] a week after [admission], that person will have 
spread it to a number of other people.”

On March 15, a New York City jail investigator became the first city 
worker to die from the COVID-19 
Jail commissioner Cynthia Brann stated that, as an investigator, the man 
had limited contact with the incarcerated population. Two others, an 
incarcerated man and a correctional officer, at Rikers have also tested 
In the state prison system, an employee at Sing Sing, one of New York’s 
maximum-security prisons, also tested positive for COVID-19 

Furthermore, Beck noted that prison policies make hygienic practices 
recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as 
washing hands frequently with soap and water, nearly impossible. Hand 
sanitizer, which has alcohol, is prohibited in prisons (though New York 
prisoners are manufacturing hand sanitizer for outside use, and are paid 
an average of 65 cents per hour 
Many people are in cells without hot water and, sometimes, without 
working sinks.

At the same time, social distancing is impossible in a prison setting. 
“You can’t control who you’re interacting with,” Beck noted. At meal 
times, for instance, people are “herded into meal halls where they sit 
where someone else ate 15 minutes ago. But that area hasn’t been 

That’s true in Michigan as well. “Tara,” imprisoned in Michigan’s sole 
women’s prison, told /Truthout/ that, although two of the prison’s 36 
housing units have been quarantined because of women with flu-like 
symptoms, women still go to the cafeteria together with the quarantined 
women going after those in general population. “When I asked security, 
‘Isn’t this a crowd over 100?’ they called me smarty pants,” she stated.

Texas prisons have also not reported any cases of COVID-19. But 
“Coretta,” currently imprisoned in Texas, worries that exposure will 
come from a staff member. In a letter to /Truthout/, she wrote, “these 
COs [correctional officers] are always sick. They are constantly 
coughing and sneezing.”

“Coretta” is in the prison’s restricted housing unit, where she and 
others are locked in their cells nearly 24 hours each day. But even in 
isolation, incarcerated people are at risk for exposure. Prison policy 
dictates that officers conduct cell inspections every three days. “They 
take us out of our cell — handcuffed,” she described. “They enter, flush 
our toilets, turn on the faucets, hit the walls with a black rubber 
mallet, then return us to the cell. When we are waiting beside our cell 
door, there [are] two officers, one on each side, holding each arm. 
They’re coughing and sneezing. I’m fussing, ‘Sneeze in your elbow! Use 
that Purell before you touch me!’”

Indiana prisons have not reported cases of COVID-19. It’s only a matter 
of time though, wrote Sarah Pender, currently imprisoned at the women’s 
Rockville Correctional Facility, in an e-message to /Truthout/. “We 
understand that when it comes here, we will not get any kind of 
treatment except Tylenol and temperature monitoring. We will suffer, and 
there will be people who die. There are several women who have 
compromised immune systems, are diabetic, who have lung issues, or are 
over 60. Since the death rate is 2 to 3 percent, that means we will 
inevitably have some deaths here.”

In another e-message, Pender added, “I don’t want to think about what 
they will do with women who need ICU treatment or ventilators. We only 
have 13 beds in the infirmary, and only one isolation room. I hope we 
don’t have to find out.”

    *Video Visits Can’t Replace In-Person Visits. What Next?*

For the past three years, Donna Robinson has traveled over 400 miles 
from her home in Buffalo, New York, to visit her daughter Missy, who is 
serving a 15 years-to-life sentence at Bedford Hills Correctional 
Facility. Robinson has no car, so she must travel from Buffalo to New 
York City where she then boards a Metro-North train. Once at Bedford 
Hills, she takes a five-minute taxi ride to the prison.

The last time she visited Missy was in late January. By then, cases of 
COVID-19 had already been confirmed outside of China and the World 
Health Organization was days away from declaring a Public Health 
Emergency of International Concern. In the prison visiting room, 
however, there was no hand sanitizer or soap for visitors or their 
incarcerated loved ones.

Even before New York suspended prison visits on March 13, Robinson, now 
age 64, realized that she could no longer visit. “I’m in the high-risk 
category,” she told /Truthout/. “I’m over 60. I have a lowered immune 
system. I have diabetes.”

New York prisons offer video visits (or televisits) and, in some cities 
such as Buffalo and New York City, have satellite locations where family 
members can video visit with their loved ones for free. Robinson has 
signed up for video visits and is now awaiting both approval and 
information on where she can go to access these visits for free. Video 
visits will never take the place of in-person visits, Robinson 
acknowledges. “There’s nothing like that hug,” she said. During their 
six-hour visits, mother and daughter play Uno, eat food from the prison 
vending machines, and take pictures together. Now, she and Missy stay in 
touch by phone at the cost of 43 cents per minute 

    *Advocates Demand Free Video Visits and Calls*

At 10 cents per minute 
the cost of prison phone calls in Massachusetts is less than a quarter 
of the cost of calls in New York state. Even so, many families struggle 
with the cost of staying in contact with their incarcerated loved ones.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley knows about these difficulties. Her father was in 
and out of prison throughout her childhood. As an adult, Pressley 
married a man who had served 10 years in prison 
Though Conan Harris had already been released and successfully rebuilt 
his life in Boston by the time they met and married, hearing about his 
struggles gave the lawmaker insight into the challenges faced by many 
families, including the high price to stay connected.

“Any avenue to maintain familial bonds should be free,” Pressley said in 
a webinar about COVID-19 and the prison system 
“If visits are going to be cancelled as a strategy of containment, then 
video conferencing and phone calls should be free.”

Jack Beck noted that phone time is already limited and, with visits 
canceled, there will be greater demand for the limited number of phones 
inside the prison. At the same time, calls continue to be restricted to 
small blocks of time, typically 15 to 20 minutes.

For Cat Perkins and her husband Gary, that 15-minute call ends way too 
quickly. “He always asks, ‘Why do those 15 minutes go by so fast?’” 
Perkins told /Truthout/. Her husband is in Chuckawalla Valley State 
Prison, California, where 2,733 people are incarcerated in a prison 
designed for 1,738 people 
<https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/facility-locator/cvsp/>. Many of the men around 
him cannot afford phone calls or have families in other countries, so 
Gary does not face longer phone lines. Nonetheless, Perkins pays $1.30 
for a 15-minute call, a sharp decrease from the previous $5 per call.

In Georgia, a 15-minute phone call ranges from $1.95 to $2.40 
depending on the distance. That’s now the only way that Cynthia Holland 
can stay in touch with her daughter Michelle, who is serving a life 
sentence at Georgia’s Arrendale State Prison.

For the past 11 years, Holland has visited Michelle every weekend, 
driving the 90 miles from her home in Atlanta. Now, like Robinson and 
Missy in New York and families across the country, the two must rely on 
phone calls and e-messages.

But Holland now gets fewer phone calls from Michelle. “It makes you 
worry more,” she told /Truthout/. She has avoided using video visits 
because of the cost (33 cents per minute as of 2016 
“If it [the ban on visits] goes on too long, I guess I’ll have to 
start,” she said. She, too, thinks that prisons should decrease the cost 
of video visits and phone calls, especially while visits are suspended. 
(The company JPay, which provides e-messages for Georgia prisons, has 
stated that it will now provide two free e-messages per week while 
visits are suspended.)

Michelle Tran spends between $100 to $150 each month for phone calls and 
knows many family members who spend twice that amount. She expects that, 
as businesses close and employees lose paychecks and possibly jobs in 
attempts to prevent COVID-19 exposure, the cost of prison calls will 
become increasingly prohibitive. That, in turn, adds to the stress of 
not being able to see an incarcerated loved one. She thinks prison phone 
companies should offer free calls during this time. “We know it’s a 
billion-dollar industry 
<https://time.com/5595475/prison-phone-calls-connecticut-law/>,” she 

In some states, prisons and private contractors are offering reduced 
to keep in touch. In New York, while visits are suspended, incarcerated 
people will receive five free postage stamps 
<https://doccs.ny.gov/visitation-suspension-details>, two free 
e-messages and one free phone call per week. Incarcerated people in 
Connecticut will receive two free phone calls each week. Illinois 
prisons are allowing two free 20-minute calls and one free video visit 
during this time. This is not a weekly offer, noted Alexis Mansfield of 
the Women’s Justice Institute <https://womensjustice.net/about-us>. 
Mansfield also noted that Illinois prisons do not have enough phones 
to meet demand even during non-pandemic times.

Officials in Shelby County, Tennessee, announced that they would waive 
all fees for phone calls and video visits in its jails 
Utah prison officials are offering 10 free 15-minute phone calls per 
On March 17, California followed suit, announcing that prison phone 
calls will be free 
<https://twitter.com/CACorrections/status/1240057655596482560?s=20> from 
March 19 to March 26. At Chuckawalla Valley, however, people were issued 
a memo stating that they would only be allowed free phone calls on March 
19 and March 26, not continually throughout that week. For many inside 
that prison, even two days of free calls was a boon. In his nightly call 
on March 18, Perkins’s husband told her that men had started lining up 
at 6 pm so that they could call their families for free once midnight 

However, many other state prisons — and the private telecommunications 
companies with which they contract — have been slow to offer similar 
cost reductions.

    *“We Need to Start From the Framework of Release, Not Hand Sanitizers”*

Meanwhile, at least one other country is taking more dramatic steps in 
the face of the virus: Iran temporarily released 85,000 prisoners 
to slow the spread of COVID-19.

In the United States, advocates in Indiana 
Louisiana <https://twitter.com/theappeal/status/1238154965618528257>, 
Mississippi, California and New York are demanding that their states do 
the same. They have issued open letters to their respective governors 
calling on them to release people who are most vulnerable, including 
people who are over the age of 60 and/or medically fragile.

Cat Perkins’s husband Gary, age 56, does not fall into either category. 
Nonetheless, she’s advocating that California Gov. Gavin Newsom consider 
early release 
for people who are over age 60, medically fragile or have anticipated 
release dates in 2020 or 2021.

“We have a lot of inmates who are sickly. Why not release them?” she 
asked. She notes that her husband, who has been incarcerated since 1986 
and is serving a life without parole sentence, is no longer the same man 
that he was at age 22. The same holds true for the many other people who 
have spent decades in prison. “They’ve done 30, 40 years. Why not give 
them a little bit of freedom?”

Across the country, in New York, Donna Robinson, a member of Release 
Aging People in Prison <http://rappcampaign.com/about/>, has joined the 
call for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to release incarcerated people who are most 
vulnerable to COVID-19. That would not affect her daughter Missy, now in 
her 40s, but Robinson remembers — and is still outraged by — the death 
of 61-year-old Valerie Gaiter 
Gaiter was 40 years into a 50-to-life sentence and 10 years from her 
first parole hearing when she died of esophageal cancer. “That could be 
my daughter dying behind bars at the age of 61 after complaining about 
pain for a year,” Robinson reflected.

No governors have yet responded to this call for releasing the most 
vulnerable people.

On the city level, however, judges, jail officials, jail oversight 
monitors and even prosecutors are considering mass release as a way to 
slow exposure. In Chicago, the Cook County sheriff’s office has already 
released several people 
who were determined to be at higher risk, including a pregnant person 
and a person who had been hospitalized for treatment not related to 

The Los Angeles sheriff’s department 
judges in Cleveland 
are considering doing the same. In New York City, the Board of 
Correction, which oversees conditions in the city’s jails, recommended 
the immediate release 
of people over age 50, those with underlying health conditions, people 
detained for technical violations of probation or parole, and those 
sentenced to less than one year behind bars.

Thirty-one prosecutors, in places ranging from San Francisco and 
Brooklyn to Mississippi and Alabama, issued a joint statement 
pledging to reduce the numbers held in jails by releasing people 
detained because they can’t afford cash bail, those with six months or 
less to serve, and people considered at high risk for COVID-19.

Not every county official is taking measures to reduce the flow of 
people into jails and prisons. Andrea James, co-founder of the National 
Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, 
stated that a federal judge recently denied a motion from a woman who 
was scheduled to self-surrender and begin her prison sentence. The 
woman, said James, has a severely compromised immune system, recently 
underwent surgery, and is about to begin chemotherapy.

“We need to start from the framework of release, not hand sanitizers,” 
said James.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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