Advocates launch hunger strike to force Wolf to release inmates to slow COVID spread

(Photo via The Philadelphia Tribune)

(*Updated at 3:25 p.m. on 6/2/20 to include comment from the Pa. Dept. of Corrections)

A coalition of organizations has launched a hunger strike to force Gov. Tom Wolf to release incarcerated individuals to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania prisons. 

In a May 28 letter, Free People Strike called on Wolf to release 1,800 individuals eligible for release under an April 10 reprieve order Wolf signed to help aid the Department of Corrections in qualifying individuals for transfer or home confinement amid COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons. 

The organization has not heard a response from Wolf’s office since sending the letter. 

*The Capital-Star reached out to Wolf’s office for comment and received a statement from the state Department of Corrections, saying the department is aware of the letter addressed to the governor.

“The temporary reprieve program, along with other measures implemented since the onset of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, have resulted in our ability to reduce the state prison and community corrections populations. Our facility population is down 2,359 since April 1 and down 2,933 from March 1,” DOC Press Secretary Maria Finn said in an email to the Capital-Star.

Free People Strike organizer Jackson Kusiak said he and two other organizers have not eaten in five days. More than 20 people joined in the strike on Monday as a show of solidarity. 

Kusiak said “the governor has been silent,” and that his group has been calling and emailing his office everyday.

Twenty-five organizations in the state support the hunger strike, including the Human Rights Coalition, where Kusiak does criminal-justice reform advocacy work. 

“If he’s willing to meet with us to talk about how he’s going to release people so they don’t have to die in prison, we will talk with him,” Kusiak said. “Police and the prisons show indifference toward Black people dying in prison, and the governor continues to be silent.”

The letter also called for an expansion of the reprieve order to include people incarcerated for a drug-trafficking offense, people who served at least 75 percent of their minimum sentence, individuals over the age of 60 who completed at least 50 percent of their minimum sentence, the medically vulnerable regardless of offense type, and people incarcerated due to technical parole violations.

Here are other demands outlined in the letter to Wolf:

  • Expand the reprieve order to suspend sentences for new technical parole or probation violations in an effort to allow facilities to safely distance people from one another;
  • Sign three commutation applications recommended by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons for individuals serving life in prison without parole;
  • See that released individuals receive access to housing, food, and medical care, including treatment for those who tested positive for COVID-19;
  • The governor and Secretary of Corrections must ensure prevention, testing, and medical care for those who remain incarcerated;
  • Issue an Emergency Removal Order on the Berks County Residential Center, an ICE facility in Philadelphia, to release all families to a relative or sponsor.

There have been 141 reprieve releases so far, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. The DOC implemented a statewide inmate quarantine on March 29, where Corrections Secretary John Wetzel described it as “forced social distancing” in a statement. There are 25 state prisons and more than 44,000 inmates. County prisons are not operated by the DOC and are not subject to this quarantine mandate.

The Corrections Department  began a state prison reopening process on May 26 using a five-phase strategy

In a May 22 statement Wetzel said that as counties move from red, yellow, and green in Wolf’s statewide reopening plan prisons in those counties will gradually increase the number of inmates allowed at a time and programs will cautiously move away from cell-based activities.

The demands were adapted from letters written this spring by ACLU-PA, Amistad Law Project, the Abolitionist Law Center, ACT UP Philly, Inside Justice, and a 2016 letter from the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition.