Prison Policy Initiative
The Prison Policy Initiative has focused efforts in the past month on responding to the threat of COVID-19 facing incarcerated people. In our updated briefing, Five ways the criminal justice system could slow the pandemic, we offer five strategies that, if adopted quickly, could slow the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, including: reducing the number of people in local jails by slowing admissions and increasing releases; reducing the number of people in state and federal prison by doing the same; eliminating unnecessary face-to-face contact for people on probation or parole; making correctional healthcare more humane and eliminating medical co-pays; and making communication for incarcerated people and their families as affordable as possible (especially while in-person visitation is suspended). In the briefing, we also explain which criminal justice officials and elected leaders are empowered to make these changes to avoid further preventable deaths during the pandemic. We created an index of our COVID-19 response work, including a live document tracking state and local responses to the pandemic and numerous briefings that help make the case for immediate decarceration.
Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF)
Before the coronavirus pandemic put an indefinite hold on the Coalition to End Money Bond’s legislative advocacy efforts, CCBF began raising the alarm about the threat COVID-19 posed to people incarcerated in Cook County Jail (CCJ) on March 6th. On March 13th, we published an open letter demanding the mass release of people incarcerated in the jail that has been joined by more than 100 advocacy, community, and legal organizations and unions. The following week, we worked with several faith-based partners to hold a socially distanced prayer vigil outside of CCJ. Later that same week, CCBF worked with Believers Bail Out and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights to pay more than $120,000 in bonds, freeing 22 people. In the wake of these actions, the number of people in CCJ has now dropped by almost 1,000 people, reaching 4,661 on April 3rd. Most recently, a federal judge ordered the Cook County Sheriff's Office to implement policies ensuring sanitation, testing, and social distancing at intake and the distribution of personal protective equipment following a lawsuit filed by CCBF, Loevy & Loevy, Civil Rights Corps, and the MacArthur Justice Center. This order came on the heels of a solidarity caravan planned by many local organizations, including CCBF outside of Cook County Jail.
Dignity and Power Now
On March 10th, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to accept the Los Angeles County Alternatives to Incarceration report that adopts a “Care First, Jails Last” approach to justice reform and public safety. Dignity & Power Now and JusticeLA, along with community organizers and advocates – including County representatives, members of academia, and formerly incarcerated people - detailed a Roadmap of 114 recommendations that can be used to transform LA County’s criminal justice system. With the implementation of the ATI working group’s recommendations, some immediately and others over time, the working group seeks to redefine the roles of our healthcare and criminal justice systems.
Fair and Just Prosecution (FJP)
For much of the last month, FJP has been focused on the threat COVID-19 poses to incarcerated populations, directing advocacy efforts at mitigating the risk this pandemic presents to elderly and vulnerable people behind bars. Given the catastrophic impact an outbreak of COVID-19 could have in detention and correctional facilities, FJP has been working with elected prosecutors and other criminal justice leaders to drastically reduce populations in these facilities at the local, state and federal levels. These efforts have included: a sign-on statement 35 local elected prosecutors joined with detailed recommendations on how to reduce the population behind bars and address health and humanitarian concerns in prisons and jails; an open letter to President Trump signed by over 400 former DOJ attorneys, DOJ leaders, US Attorneys and federal judges urging the President to take immediate action to reduce the incarcerated population in federal correctional and detention facilities; an op-ed about the potentially catastrophic impact of a COVID-19 outbreak behind bars; and a featured guest spot on the PEN America podcast on how to address the rights of needs of individuals in custody during this pandemic. We feel privileged to work with inspiring partners and other grantees on these and other efforts in this challenging time.
Movement for Family Power
Movement for Family Power is raising awareness of how the foster system’s inhumane pandemic response is affecting families: abruptly ending in-person parent/child/sibling visitation; putting family reunifications in limbo; and unlawfully drug testing pregnant people and newborns. We are also raising funds for mothers at risk of losing their children, specifically supporting mothers in Harlem and Brooklyn to access basic supplies like diapers and wipes to prevent CPS involvement. We created an FAQ on COVID-19 and the Foster System to unpack how families are being affected by the family court and the foster system’s response to the pandemic, and to lift up solutions that can help families in need. Last week, due to the prolonged and intense advocacy of so many, the federal government issued unprecedented guidance around the foster system’s response to COVID. For more information and to join us in raising awareness, visit our COVID-19 resource page.
Project NIA's director, Mariame Kaba, facilitated a virtual town hall meeting with Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that discussed a response to COVID-19 based in mutual aid. Organizers may find the Mutual Aid 101 toolkit useful to their work right now. It includes step-by-step instructions for how you can build your own mutual aid network while staying safe from the spread of COVID-19. A broader list of mutual aid resources can be found here.
Promise of Justice Initiative (PJI)
One week after the first positive COVID-19 case was confirmed in Louisiana, PJI signed on to a coalition letter to the Governor requesting protection and release for people incarcerated and at great risk from a wildfire outbreak of COVID-19 in Louisiana jails and prisons. In the weeks since then, and among many other efforts, PJI exposed and is working to block a plan by the Louisiana DOC to ship COVID-19 patients to the long shuttered Camp J at Angola, far from medical facilities. Through litigation and organizing we are advocating for our clients and anyone incarcerated in Louisiana without access to sanitizing supplies or the ability to socially distance. We continue to fight for the now 1600 people we have identified with non-unanimous juries who should be entitled to release once Ramos v. Louisiana is decided by the Supreme Court.
Safety & Justice Oregon
While most of our current work is centered on addressing the crisis of COVID-19 for incarcerated people, and the unexpected impact of the stay-at-home order on domestic violence victims – Oregon’s elections are fast approaching, and there are two races for district attorney that we are following closely. Oregon is a vote-by-mail state, and our primary on May 19th is scheduled to take place as planned. In the state’s most populous county, we have endorsed Mike Schmidt for Multnomah County District Attorney. Schmidt is the clear candidate of choice and would become the progressive district attorney in Oregon’s most progressive region. His opponent is running a misleading campaign that pays lip service to progressive values while securing contributions and endorsements from establishment law enforcement officials and their unions. In the smaller Wasco County, which has made news headlines for its contracts with ICE, criminal defense lawyer Matt Ellis has jumped into the race for district attorney. Ellis is running against a tough-on-crime incumbent who currently has his bar license suspended for lying to investigators. This is an opportunity we can’t sit out, and we are moving quickly to run our endorsement process and see how we can elevate Ellis’ candidacy. We hope to have good news to report in late May or early June as we expect that vote counting may be slower than usual.
Texas Organizing Project
TOP’s two fists — people power and political power - were on full display April 1 when we hosted "TOP Justice: Texas Progressive DAs Lead the Way,” an accountability session on Facebook with Texas’ most progressive district attorneys who we helped elect. John Creuzot (Dallas County), Joe Gonzales (Bexar County) and Brian Middleton (Fort Bend County) talked to our members about what they’ve done to further our fight to end mass incarceration, and answered questions and took feedback on additional steps we need them to take to finally make justice real for our Black and Latino people. Our live-stream reached more than 95,000 people, proving that our communities will unapologetically hold these DAs accountable during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond to end mass incarceration for Latino and Black families. We asked them to do more so that our jails don’t continue to be full of people who are presumed innocent but can’t get out because they don’t have the money to pay bail. The online town hall represented a major organizing shift for us. We can’t meet in person, but we are determined to continue organizing any way we can, and pulling off powerful actions that move us closer to having a legal system that looks like us and is accountable to us.
Amistad Law Project
In response to COVID-19, Amistad Law Project (ALP) pivoted to make a number of targeted interventions to ensure the safety of incarcerated people, get people out of Pennsylvania state prisons, and to build and support the base of incarcerated people’s families. ALP started with a list of demands to the Department of Corrections and state officials. Along with the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Abolitionist Law Center, Amistad led a campaign calling on the Governor to use his reprieve powers to temporarily suspend the sentences of the approximately 12,000 incarcerated people estimated by the Department of Corrections as vulnerable to COVID-19. The groups sent a joint letter addressed to the Governor, Parole Board, and Department of Corrections and later held a telephone press conference, urging the state actors to use all available measures to decarcerate Pennsylvania prisons. Next, the groups co-hosted a Zoom townhall and info-share for families and friends of incarcerated people that reached over one thousand viewers. ALP also launched weekly Zoom gatherings called “Community Conversations” as a way to help family members of incarcerated people connect and remain grounded during the crisis. Additionally, ALP organized public health professionals and faith leaders and engaged with legislators to speak out and write letters to the Governor. On April 10, Governor Wolf announced that he would use his reprieve powers to make eligible for release approximately 1500 to 1800 people.
Texas Advocates for Justice
Houston Texas Advocates for Justice members Carl Nix and Monique Joseph spoke before the Harris County Commissioners Court about the overcrowding in the Harris County Jails and COVID-19 and the need to implement immediate releases to keep currently incarcerated people and staff safe from the virus. An order was written on April 1, 2020 by Judge Hidalgo to release more than 1000 people from the jail. District Judge Herb Ritchie, who supervises the felony judges, issued an order to the sheriff office to disregard a directive by Harris County Judge Hidalgo. The final decision is awaiting legal interpretation. Also, Austin City Council unanimously voted in favor of Items 81 and 87, locally known as the RISE resolution. The resolution allocates $15 million for direct assistance to people facing financial hardship. Of the $15 million, $7.5 million will be available in the form of direct cash assistance to struggling Austinites. This victory is much-needed for Austin undocumented workers, mixed-status families, those who work in the cash economy, independent contractors, and college students who were left out of federal relief efforts. With many losing their jobs overnight due to social distancing practices and Austin’s stay at home order, direct cash assistance will allow individuals to have agency on how the money will be used.
Court Watch NOLA
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in New Orleans, Court Watch NOLA has been dedicated to preserving transparency in the courts. Court Watch NOLA's staff and volunteers have been fighting for zoom access to bail hearings since mid-March. Though this fight is not over, Court Watch NOLA has made initial progress in getting speakerphone access to the proceedings. We will continue to fight for full access to the courts but in the meantime are sending regular data updates on the types of arrests made and the types of bail demanded in New Orleans. For more on this fight, please see here. Additionally, Court Watch NOLA has paired with the Office of the Independent Police Monitor, the MacArthur Justice Institute and Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition, to call for an end to custodial arrests for non-violent, non-sex offenses--urging NOPD to instead utilize summonses. We know that unnecessary arrests mean unnecessary deaths, and that jails are not equipped to handle the current outbreak of COVID-19. Join our campaign on social media using the hashtag #HealthNotHandcuffs. For more on this fight, take a look at this Citylab article.
Restorative Justice Project at Impact Justice
Traditionally, our model of restorative justice diversion requires participants to meet in-person to address harm. To adapt to the COVID-19 public health crisis, we’re developing tools to allow for restorative justice diversion processes to take place virtually. Our new digital platform will serve survivors and youth who have had their cases diverted to our community partners by prosecutors in California, Florida, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. We believe this platform will continue to meet the needs of survivors and communities while centering healing and accountability - even during times of crisis or when physical meetings are an impossibility. We also began convening national virtual meetings with all our partners to discuss the impacts of the current public health crisis on the pre-charge restorative justice diversion programs. These are spaces for problem solving and collectively sharing guidance on how to continue the work in this time. Through these meetings, a network of support for community-based organizations and legal system partners across the country has emerged, and our role is to listen to their needs, offer our support to identify resources, and continue creating opportunities for these connections. These words guide our approach to working during the pandemic: Wellness: We're centering on being physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, well for ourselves and our partners. Listen: We're listening to needs that emerge from our partners. Adjust: Based on what we hear from our partners, we're being responsive to immediate and urgent needs as it pertains to the overall wellbeing of our partners and team.
American Conservative Union Foundation
As the Coronavirus spreads and continues to take its toll across the nation, major holes in our rural healthcare system have been exposed. There are many reasons for this erosion of rural care, but one in particular points back to a little known federal program originally intended to fund rural infrastructure such as hospitals, mental health clinics and schools. Every year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides funding for rural infrastructure through the Community Facilities Direct Loan and Grant Program, however in 1996, this funding was opened up for construction of rural detention centers. As a result, more than $360 million of agriculture funds have been used for rural jail construction. This two-headed sword has created large new rural jails, prone to a widespread COVID-19 outbreak, while siphoning resources needed to respond to such outbreak. Read the op-ed by David Safavian and Former NYPD Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, here.