By John N. Mitchell
PHILADELPHIA — The Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity joined the voices of other organizations seeking the release of low-risk offenders in city jails to reduce their risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus.
“If we are going to be about public safety, we really need to be about public safety for everybody,” the group’s former president, James Broadnax, said during a teleconference with local media. “What we have right now in our jails is a formula for disaster not only for the inmates, who would be literal sitting ducks in the event of an outbreak, but also for corrections officers, attorneys, social workers and others who risk bringing the virus home and spreading it in their communities.
“Efforts that we are making statewide to flatten the curve of infection will inevitably be frustrated by the inability to control its spread in the prison system,” he continued. “So we must act quickly. Infections among the general population are climbing exponentially. We don’t want them to do the same in the prison population.”
Philadelphia Public Health Commissioner Thomas Farley reported on Thursday that there were eight new confirmed cases of coronavirus among city jail inmates, bringing the total of infected inmates to 20. The first confirmed case in a city jail was identified just six days ago.
As of Thursday, 4,281 people were imprisoned in the city’s five jails; approximately 70% are Black.
Both the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office and the Defender Association of Philadelphia have called for city jails to expedite the release of low-risk inmates to better facilitate social distancing and therefore reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus in the enclosed spaces.
Hundreds of activists and community members held a two-hour protest outside City Hall on Monday, calling on Mayor Jim Kenney to issue an order that would release some non-violent offenders and prisoners who are elderly or have an underlying medical condition that puts them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.
Officials in the Kenney administration say any kind of mass prisoner release should come from the courts.
“The release has to come from the court system and I believe we are working productively to be able to move those processes along,” City Managing Director Brian Abernathy said during a news conference later Thursday. “On the prison side themselves, I think they (city jails) have done a good job in making sure their inmates and officers are protected.”
The Department of Public Health has instructed city jails to quarantine newly admitted inmates for at least 14 days. Inmates showing symptoms associated with COVID-19 are being tested to determine if they have the disease.
Jails have on-site quarantine facilities for inmates displaying COVID-19 symptoms. The jails are also limiting the movement of inmates, and providing them with at least an hour outside during which social distancing is being strictly enforced.
City officials said they also have attempted to expedite the release of some inmates by turning over a significant amount of data to attorneys filing petitions for release.
Philadelphia courts have been closed since March 16. Since that time, the city jail population has dropped by 3%, according a letter Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey wrote to District Attorney Larry Krasner.
Many in city jails are there due to an inability to meet bail requirements. They are among a large group of inmates that include those approved to begin house arrest and those in jail on technical violations.
The Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity is encouraging the release of people incarcerated under such circumstances. The group is also advocating for the release of inmates 55 or older who do not pose a threat to the public and may have underlying health issues that make them more vulnerable to the virus, which state records show has caused 1,852 confirmed infections and 13 deaths.
“The current rates of infection of the coronavirus place incarcerated persons along with those that oversee them at particular risk due to the problem of overcrowded jails and the inability to house inmates in a way that maintains safe social distancing guidelines,” said Rev. Robert Collier, President of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and vicinity.
John N. Mitchell is a reporter and columnist for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.