One of the last places you want to be during a pandemic is in prison.
These places are festering petri dishes. Social distancing is almost impossible. Face masks are in short supply.
Releasing nonviolent prisoners who are near the end of their sentences is humane, which is why I applaud authorities for granting an early release to former State Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell.
The former Philadelphia representative, who was sentenced to three months in prison this year for stealing from her nonprofit, had been scheduled to go home on May 6. Then the coronavirus began spreading and Pennsylvania correctional facilities went on lockdown.
On Friday, governors in Pennsylvania and New Jersey issued executive orders to begin the process of releasing thousands of prisoners as a way to further stem the spread of the coronavirus.
“I am pleased to direct the Department of Corrections to begin the process to release vulnerable and non-violent inmates at or nearing their release dates in an organized way that maintain[s] supervision post-release and ensures home and health-care plans are in place for all re-entrants,” Wolf said in a statement.
Pennsylvania corrections facilities could begin releasing inmates as early as Tuesday.
Luckily for Johnson-Harrell, she’s already out. Because the former state representative worked in the kitchen at the Riverside Correctional Facility, her temperature was monitored daily to determine if she had contracted the coronavirus, which is spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
“It was scary, because women were getting sick all around me,” she told me on Thursday.
On Tuesday, when she got the news that she would be going home, the other inmates started banging on their doors and cheering, she told me. They hugged her and pushed notes into her hands. It was like a scene from a movie, she said.
Watching her leave and return to the relative safety of a home stocked with hand sanitizer, disinfectant, and other things necessary to help survive this pandemic gave them hope.
Inmates are literally trapped in an environment where they can’t protect themselves from a potentially deadly virus. That’s troubling.
I commend both Wolf and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy for what they’re doing.
It’s not about releasing rapists and murderers and others who are a threat to society. This is about about letting out more nonviolent offenders, those like Johnson-Harrell who are close to completing their sentences and thus are scheduled to be released soon anyway.
“Former State Representative Johnson Harrell … poses little threat to society,” said State Sen. Sharif Street (D., Phila.) via Facebook Messenger. “I encourage the Dept. of Corrections to continue their policy of releasing people similarly situated. These are prudent steps during this health crisis in order to prevent community spread among staff, inmates and members of the public.”
Johnson-Harrell, who is quarantining inside her home as a safety precaution against possibly spreading the virus, told me she has been sleeping a lot and is grateful to be with her family again. One day, she hopes to advocate on behalf of inmates. “My last words to them were, ‘I’m not leaving you behind,'" she said.
Already, she’s made a name for herself as an anti-gun activist. Now she can add social justice reform to her causes. “There’s still not a day that I don’t think about Charles,” she added, referring to the son whose 2011 homicide spurred her into advocacy.
Johnson-Harrell is quarantining with her children, grandchildren, and husband. She’s no threat to anybody.
Nor are some of the inmates who served time with her at Riverside. It’s cruel and unusual punishment to keep some of these folks locked up.
We’re sheltering in place in our homes to save lives. So should they.