As the coronavirus pandemic has forced us to self-isolate to avoid spreading the disease, some have wondered how any social distance is possible in group-living facilities, particularly jails and prisons. Last month, protesters took to the streets of Philadelphia to demand more inmates be released. However, law enforcement officials argue that doing so would cause problems for public safety, as well as add health risks to those who would be released. The Inquirer turned to an activist and a law enforcement official to debate: Should there be a large-scale release of prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic?

No: Inmates currently in Philadelphia’s jails are there for a good reason.

By William McSwain

Those calling for the mass release of prisoners want to leverage the pandemic into advancing their political agenda.

These Philadelphia activists — and the activist-in-chief, District Attorney Larry Krasner — want to spread as much misinformation as possible in order to advance their radical criminal justice “reform” agenda. They smell an opportunity.

If you don’t believe me, consider this: Many of the prisoners who have already been released (and those who might soon be released) will have time remaining on their original sentences once the danger from the pandemic is gone. How many of the activists — those who flock to City Hall holding banners saying “Free Them All” and “Free Our People” — will then be leading the charge for these individuals to be reincarcerated? I’ll tell you how many: zero. That fact exposes the lie of everything that the activists are pushing. Nobody should believe a word they say.

Here are a few other things the activists don’t want you to think about. Inmates currently in Philadelphia’s jails are there for a good reason. They are not victims or political prisoners or folk heroes. The large-scale release of prisoners would have an obvious, and possibly devastating, effect on public safety. In Florida, for example, an inmate recently released in response to coronavirus concerns has been charged for murdering someone the very next day. In California, it took a man only 40 minutes after his coronavirus-inspired release to commit a carjacking.

During the pandemic, many [inmates] are simply better off in prison, where they have food, shelter, and access to health care, including addiction treatment and mental health services.

William McSwain

The large-scale release of prisoners would also unfairly burden the Philadelphia Police Department, which is already struggling to deal with a rise in serious violent crime during the pandemic. Officers are at risk of being exposed to the virus; some are already infected, and others are in quarantine. With the department under pressure, the last thing our city needs is more criminals on the loose.

Additionally, the large-scale release of prisoners would, in many cases, put the prisoners themselves more at risk. Many do not have stable housing options, and almost none have employment prospects during the pandemic. And the idea that released individuals — who have already shown themselves unwilling or unable to follow the law — will abide by social distancing orders is fanciful. During the pandemic, many are better off in prison, where they have food, shelter, and access to health care, including addiction treatment and mental health services.

Most importantly, the large-scale release of prisoners would be an affront to the rule of law. There is no “pandemic exception” to the rule of law. No prisoner should be released without the courts (and prison officials) going through a careful, deliberative, and individualized assessment — one that requires the prosecution to be an honest broker and not an activist tool. Sadly, those in favor of throwing open Philadelphia’s prison gates don’t care about the rule of law, but the rest of us do and for good reason. It is the foundation upon which our entire society rests. We should be extremely vigilant in protecting it, especially when times are tough.

William McSwain is the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, covering Philadelphia and its eight surrounding counties.

Yes: Leaving people in prison who are vulnerable to COVID-19 is a death sentence.

By Kris Henderson

In this time of isolation, many people don’t have the option of sheltering in their homes. Among these are over 44,000 people in Pennsylvania’s correctional institutions.

Infectious diseases run rampant through the close quarters of prisons and jails during normal times and are potential hotbeds for COVID-19 infection. Rikers Island in New York City has had hundreds of incarcerated people and staff contract COVID-19. Here in Pennsylvania, one man who was fighting to exonerate himself died from the virus.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections houses about 12,000 people medically vulnerable to COVID-19 — each of these someone’s child, friend, parent, spouse, or beloved family member.

On April 10, Gov. Tom Wolf issued an executive order making 1,800 people in Pennsylvania state prison convicted of certain nonviolent crimes eligible for reprieve if they can figure out home and reentry plans. Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel has said that of those 1,800 eligible, anywhere from 40% to 80% will likely get out. This is not enough.

The governor’s order excludes more groups than it includes: It leaves out people convicted of drug trafficking — a troubling point given the racial disparities of the war on drugs — people convicted of violent crimes, even if they have long been misconduct-free and pose no threat to public safety, and those who have more than a year left before reaching their minimum sentence.

Many of the oldest people in DOC custody are serving life or other lengthy sentences, usually for a violent crime that happened years ago. Decades of research have found that as people age, their propensity for violence decreases. While a number of factors go into that reality, it is largely because many people committed the crimes for which they are incarcerated when they were young. Research shows that folks over age 60, including those who have committed violent crimes in the past, are unlikely to commit violent crimes if released.

Leaving thousands of people in prison who are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 means potentially sentencing them to death. As of April 1, Pennsylvania had 131 people on death row. Gov. Wolf has rightly and bravely issued a moratorium on the death penalty. He should not allow that sentence to be carried out by a viral disease on countless people who were never sentenced to it in the first place.

The DOC should review everyone who is medically vulnerable or elderly and grant reprieve to anyone who can safely shelter at home regardless of offense.

Kris Henderson

Gov. Wolf ought to expand reprieve to those most vulnerable — saving the lives of incarcerated people, Department of Corrections staff, and vulnerable members of staffers’ communities. The DOC should review everyone who is medically vulnerable or elderly and grant reprieve to anyone who can safely shelter at home regardless of offense.

Additionally, the governor should expand the current reprieve to include people convicted of drug trafficking and farther than 12 months away from their minimum. Incarcerated people temporarily being allowed to serve their sentence in home confinement should be a matter of public health and safety, not a relitigation of their original crimes. If the Department of Corrections believes a person will not threaten public safety while temporarily sheltering with family, the governor ought to grant reprieve.

Many futures are in the hands of Gov. Wolf and Secretary Wetzel. We must compel these two leaders to act now to create the best future possible and save lives.

Kris Henderson is the executive director of Amistad Law Project, a West Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to people in prison and advocates for just legal policies.

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