Letter, Opinion

Prison should not be a Covid-19 death sentence

Dear Editor,

Covid-19 is impacting families all across Vermont and the nation. We have known from the beginning that group living settings are particularly susceptible to rapid infection. We have seen in other countries and states that the outcome of not taking strong preventative measures in prisons is a spike in cases of infection. We have also seen effective examples of precautions being taken in other countries, as well as this country in states such as New Jersey and California. Vermont has not followed these effective and preventive measures despite multiple requests from ACLU Vermont and Vermonters For Criminal Justice Reform.

Unfortunately, the concerns outlined by these organizations have become the reality in Vermont and may well get worse. At Northwest State Correctional Facility, 32 incarcerated persons and 16 staff members have tested positive for Covid-19, and that number may increase by the time this is published. In addition, black and brown people across the country are disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. Vermont is in the top five states for racial disparities in our prison system, meaning that lack of action increases that impact for black and brown individuals and communities in our own state.

Now that an outbreak of Covid-19 has begun in our prison system, we request that reactive and preventative measures be taken to protect incarcerated individuals, as well as Corrections officers and staff. These groups of individuals deserve the same protection that we would offer any other Vermonters in this time, but particularly anyone who has had a high risk of exposure. In a public health crisis, protecting the health and safety of an at-risk population means protecting the health and safety of all Vermonters.

We ask Governor Scott and the Department of Corrections (DOC) to immediately put into place the following measures:

Test everyone at all facilities, Corrections as well as all group homes. We know that there are false negatives and sometimes more than one test will be necessary. We also know that the spread happens through asymptomatic people.  This means that the spread can happen undetected until there is widespread exposure. A single positive case is often too late to begin testing.

Do complete testing at all congregant living situations across the state.

Ensure that people infected with Covid-19 will not be put in “isolation” usually reserved for punishment. This is causing people to hide symptoms out of fear. In addition to this being an inappropriate placement for people who are sick, this will increase the spread due to a fear of transparency for those in Corrections.

Release people who are:

Solely being held for lack of ability to post bail.

Are in prison on an interrupt, meaning a furlough, probation or parole violation that did not go before a judge,or are there only at the DOC’s discretion.

Being held for lack of residence (approved shelter or housing).

Anyone who has reached their minimum or is within 6 months of meeting their minimum or past their minimum,unless there is specific, not theoretical evidence presented that they are a continued threat of violence to the community.

Anyone that DOC has discretion to release, unless there is specific, not theoretical evidence presented that they are a continued threat of violence to the community.

Anyone that is medically high risk, unless there is specific, not theoretical evidence presented that they are a continued threat of violence to the community.

If they are medically high risk and are also a high risk of violence, then they should be kept in a safe, humane setting while incarcerated.

The DOC must be transparent about its decision-making process. Families, advocates, lawyers, and incarcerated individuals must know this criteria so that they or their advocates know if a person fits the criteria. Families across Vermont are concerned about their loved ones and deserve the opportunity to advocate for them..

We appreciate the measures taken in Vermont and understand the complexities of this pandemic. In order to protect incarcerated individuals, Corrections officers, staff, and the greater community, the above precautions must be taken. During these uncertain times, it is essential to the health and safety of Vermonters that the available science of the spread of the disease be used to protect all individuals. We, the undersigned, hold equal to other Vermonters the individuals in Corrections, Corrections officers, and Corrections staff at risk, and ask that they be treated as such.

Sincerely,

Brenda Siegel, candidate for Lieutenant Governor

Kesha Ram, candidate for Chittenden County Senate

Representative Kevin (Coach) Christie, Windsor 4-2

Representative Mari Cordes RN, Addison 4

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