Congress Must Act to Reduce Jail, Prison and Immigrant Detention Populations, Support Safe Community Reentry and Protect the Health of Incarcerated People
Washington, D.C. – Below is a statement from Maritza Perez, Director of the Office of National Affairs of the Drug Policy Alliance, expressing grave concern over Congress failing to adequately prioritize the protection of people in our nation’s criminal legal system who are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure, and urges Congress to immediately pass additional stimulus legislation to protect the health of incarcerated people:
“COVID-19 poses a serious and immediate threat to the lives of people incarcerated in jails and prisons across the country. While there are some modest provisions in the stimulus package that can help provide some support if utilized properly by the Federal Bureau of Prisons as well as state and local officials, it is unconscionable that Congress has failed to provide a robust plan that adequately mirrors the extent of the threat facing this vulnerable population.
Reports are streaming in from all over the country of COVID-19 infections rapidly spreading inside jails and prisons as well as immigration detention facilities where inadequate sanitation and overcrowded conditions put individuals at alarmingly high risk of exposure. These vulnerabilities are compounded by disproportionately high rates of serious health conditions among these populations. With them being under the custody of the government, they are entirely and understandably reliant on it to provide them with adequate protection and health care. Jails and prisons are not only inappropriate places to manage public health crisis, they are also incapable as proven by the rapidly resulting humanitarian crisis within them right now. People sentenced to serve time should not be handed a death sentence in this pandemic.
The constant movement of people in and out of these facilities also puts staff and surrounding communities and efforts to flatten the curve at grave risk. Congress must do what is morally right and act immediately to pass additional stimulus legislation that protects the health of incarcerated people.
We specifically call on Congress to take the following actions to protect these vulnerable populations:
- Direct Bureau of Prisons to release older people and others at high-risk of COVID-19 infection, as well as halt pre-trial detention, and provide federal financial incentivizes to state and local officials to do the same. The BOP should use all of the tools at its disposal to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 including releasing vulnerable individuals through compassionate release, ending the cycle of incarcerated individuals in and out of facilities – except for extenuating risks to health or the safety of the incarcerated person – for the length of this public health crisis, and ensuring all incarcerated individuals have free and complete access to healthcare.
- Provide federal funding to state and local officials to provide critical reentry support services for those released during the pandemic, ensuring warm hand-offs to health care, housing, and for many incarcerated people who have a history of substance use disorder, ensuring access to lifesaving medication assisted treatment, syringe services and overdose prevention services.
- Ensure that federal, state and local officials have sufficient funding to provide COVID-19 treatment to incarcerated people and ensuring health care access upon release, by expanding Medicaid protections to incarcerated individuals and allowing states to reinstate Medicaid prior to release.
- Repeal long-standing legal barriers to need-based federal cash, nutrition and housing assistance that prevent people with prior criminal convictions from accessing these critical life-stabilizing supports during this national emergency.
For other resources around COVID-19, please visit drugpolicy.org/covid19.