COVID-19 in Philly: Protesters mark first death of Philadelphia jail inmate

(Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Samaria Bailey

PHILADELPHIA — Activists dropped off coffins outside the Criminal Justice Center this afternoon in a symbolic gesture of protest following the first confirmed death of a Philadelphia jail inmate from the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, the city reported that “the individual who succumbed was a woman in her 40s with underlying medical conditions.”

According to a city statement, the woman was transported to a hospital April 8 and died Tuesday morning. Organizers confirmed the woman was Yvonne Harris, a mother of three.

“She was set to be released in August. She had a few months left inside and her application for early release was denied,” said Samantha Rise, an organizer with the coalition of groups who staged the protest. “A person with a pre-existing condition, inside the jails where we know people cannot practice social distancing. She had a few months left and her life was cut short because our city failed to act.”

Rise added that Harris suffered from epilepsy and that her death could’ve been prevented had she been released earlier.

Jon Cioschi of the #No215JailCoalition noted that earlier this week Judge Ann Marie Coyle denied all of the 24 motions to lift detainer or reduce bail that she reviewed and raised the bail for four cases. Cioschi added that none of the cases were first-degree felonies, such as “rape, forcible robbery, gun cases” but mainly misdemeanors and lower degree felonies, including possession with intent to distribute.

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While the protest took place, Coyle walked out of the Marriott building on the Filbert Street side, holding a dog, and was followed by protesters who shouted at her as she walked into the building across the street and got on an elevator. The protesters then stood at the exit of the garage as Coyle drove up but were pushed to the side by police.

“People are dying and she’s playing politics … I can’t even imagine sitting in a cell right now,” said Jennifer Bennetch, a returning citizen. “They don’t know if they are going to make it home to see their families. Can you imagine being in jail right now and she’s walking down the street with her dog?”

According to Chief Defender Keir Bradford Grey, the courts have made some progress in expediting the releases.

In a statement issued Wednesday, she said the Defenders Association has “worked collaboratively with the District Attorney’s Office and First Judicial District to efficiently hear cases and release hundreds of people from incarceration” since they began the expedited hearings last week.

Grey continued that “Yesterday alone, outside of cases heard by one specific judge, 222 or 60.8% of our petitions for bail reductions, probation detainer lifts, and early parole motions were granted by the courts.”

However, organizers continue to demand that a mass release of specific categories of detainees take place to prevent spread of the illness and more deaths.

“By not acting, our criminal justice stakeholders are playing Russian roulette with people’s lives,” said Malik Neal, organizer with the Philadelphia Bail Fund. “If we do not act soon, we are going to see more deaths.”

Samaria Bailey is a correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared