COVID-19 in Philly: Criminal justice advocates mount drive-by-protest calling for mass release of inmates

Protesters call for the release of prisoners outside Philadelphia City Hall on Monday, March 30. Photo courtesy of Layne Mullett/#No215Jail Coalition.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a picket line may be a public health hazard during a pandemic. But that didn’t stop dozens of criminal justice reform advocates from taking to Philadelphia’s streets on Monday, as they called on state and local officials to avert a massive outbreak of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania’s detention centers.

Honking horns and waving protest signs, activists in a caravan of cars staged a drive-by protest outside Philadelphia City Hall and Gov. Tom Wolf’s office in Philadelphia, urging officials to sanction a mass release of inmates from state prisons, local jails, and an ICE detention center in Berks County.

The cacophonous protest, which lasted more than an hour, shows just one way that activists have found creative methods for mass demonstrations during an unprecedented public health emergency.

“It’s been an occasion for us to think outside the box,” said Charmaine Butler, an organizer with the #No215Jail Coalition, which includes groups such as the Abolitionist Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “This [pandemic] is something we couldn’t have predicted.”

The demonstration also came on the same day that state prison officials declared a quarantine of all 47,000 inmates in the state prison system — a policy that confines prisoners to their cells for meals, allowing them to leave only to make phone and video calls and visit the law library.

State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel confirmed the first known case of COVID-19 in the state prison system on Sunday. The patient is an inmate at SCI-Phoenix in Montgomery County, who has underlying health issues, officials said in a press release.

Since the first cases of COVID-19 emerged in Pennsylvania in early March, activists have sounded the alarm for a potential public health emergency in Pennsylvania’s county jails, state prisons and juvenile detention centers, which housed a cumulative 87,000 people in 2018.

The Berks County Residential Center, which is operated by Berks County under a contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, houses an additional 40 migrant adults and children, according to the activist coalition.

What all the detention centers have in common, activists say, are the conditions for a particularly virulent outbreak of COVID-19.

“Sanitary conditions in these facilities are poor in normal times and medical care is extremely limited,” organizers wrote in a statement Monday. “Amidst such conditions, the spread of COVID-19 is not only inevitable, but potentially lethal.”

The activists also point out that jail and prison employees are also vulnerable to the disease, and could spread it to their families and communities if they contract it from an inmate at work.

On March 13, Pennsylvania’s state prison officials announced they were indefinitely suspending all in-person visitation for prisoners and their families.

But across the country, state officials and local prosecutors have taken more aggressive measures to reduce jail populations to thwart potential outbreaks.

In New Jersey, judges have ordered the temporary release of 1,000 offenders in county jails.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, has let more than 200 elderly and infirm inmates from municipal jails.

Led by District Attorney Larry Krasner, Philadelphia has already followed some of those examples.

So has Allegheny County, where 189 people were released from the county jail, the Capital-Star and its publishing partner, the Pittsburgh Current, reported on March 25.

Even though Pennsylvania’s courtrooms are closed under an emergency order from the state Supreme Court, Krasner said Philadelphia judges have agreed to hear parole petitions and other motions for early release of inmates, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Philadelphia police have also stopped low-level arrests to curb admissions to city jails.

But Krasner and other reform-minded activists say there’s more to be done.

Activists in Philadelphia also called on Mayor Jim Kenney to release everyone held in city jail in pre-trial detention because they cannot afford to post bail.

Krasner voiced support Monday for a petition filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which asks the state Supreme Court to order county jails to release inmates who pose a low risk to public safety.

“For the sake of us all, we must take actions to protect the health of every person,” Krasner said in a statement Monday. “That means reducing jail and prison populations so that every community in Pennsylvania has a fighting chance against this pandemic.”