Currently, folks who are incarcerated are being twice locked away — once from a life outside and again from those they are incarcerated with to prevent the spread of COVID-19. After having issued lockdowns in all state correctional institutions, Gov. Tom Wolf is receiving additional pressure from incarcerated people and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to release those who meet certain institutional criteria or are particularly vulnerable to infection.
Adryan Corcione is a nonbinary trans journalist who launched COVID-19 Behind Bars, an initiative to track confirmed and suspected cases of COVID-19 in detention centers and prisons across the nation. “Incarcerated people themselves began to express concern [over COVID-19],” explained Corcione, “their facilities weren’t being transparent about prevention measures, if any, they were taking.” Incarcerated individuals in touch with Corcione reported that within Pennsylvania state and county institutions, cleaning supplies to prevent the spread of infection were not made readily available. In fact, at SCI-Fayette in La Belle, incarcerated people are required to purchase cleaning supplies independently. For those who do not have money in prison, keeping living quarters clean and free of COVID-19 contamination might be very difficult.
Naiymah Sanchez, trans justice coordinator for the ACLU and advocate for incarcerated people, reaffirms that the problem is twofold — a lack of adequate healthcare for those inside prison and lack of a plan to deal with those who are released. Short of that, Sanchez, who is a proud woman of transgender experience, said “The lack of hygiene alone [is a problem]. If they’re locked up, how many times have they taken a shower? Is bathing in your sink in your cell [enough]? What if you have an asymptomatic cellmate and you’re immunocompromised?” And if they are permitted to be released, Sanchez asks the ultimate question: “Where do they go?”
Press Secretary Maria Finn issued a statement for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections: “Please understand that DOC officials, and […] EVERY DOC parole employee, has been working for weeks preparing for this virus and working to mitigate it. We are doing all we can to delay the virus from spreading throughout our prison system.” Finn explained that “each institution has a plan for isolation of ill inmate-patients, quarantine of those who may have been exposed, enhanced cleaning of the institution, and maximal efforts to prevent the illness from spreading, including screening at the door of everyone who enters the facility.”
The PA DOC notes only five confirmed cases of COVID-19 within one PA state prison, SCI-Phoenix. This number does not account for county jails or for suspected, untested cases of COVID-19. Corcione stated that additional cases of suspected COVID-19 have been found in other prisons in Pennsylvania beyond SCI-Phoenix. Through conversations with currently incarcerated people and their loved ones, Corcione cites “there are sick people being quarantined” in five other state correctional institutions: SCI-Muncy, SCI-Mahanoy, SCI-Albion, SCI-Pine Grove and SCI-Frackville. Though unconfirmed, these suggest a much more widespread problem than that which has been reported.
Advocates for the release of those incarcerated and PA DOC seem to be in agreement about one thing — which populations should be released. The PA DOC notes in its press release that it is prioritizing release for those who are up for parole, with a pending home plan, and who are beyond their minimum sentences. A blog from currently incarcerated people in Pennsylvania prisons, Dreaming Freedom/Practicing Abolition, prioritizes release for poverty-stricken pretrial detainees who are only held on a bail they can’t pay, those with clemency and parole petitions and individuals over 50 who are immunocompromised.
The PA DOC also commented that it would be reducing the number of individuals who are released to halfway houses in order to prevent potential COVID-19 exposures in those communities. This makes reentry more difficult though, as housing options are then even more limited.
The National Center for Transgender Equality argues that LGBTQ people, especially those who are low income and people of color, are disproportionately incarcerated. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that “2% of respondents had been incarcerated, more than twice the rate in the general population (0.87%).” Further, The Williams Institute recently reported that LGBTQ people are 2.2 times more likely to experience homelessness and 15% more likely to be poor than cisgender, heterosexual people.
“It’s a trying time [for LGBTQ people] to be homeless because lots of reentry programs are shut down,” said Corcione, “People are re-incarcerated ultimately because they don’t have any money. [Yet], this is an opportune time to shine light on how even the most robust re-entry services fail the more marginalized, including Black and Brown queer and trans people, by not adequately serving them.”
While the ACLU is pushing Gov. Wolf and the city of Philadelphia to release vulnerable populations, Sanchez said ACLU is also busy strategizing what will happen after their release. Sanchez noted that the conversation between the ACLU and other community organizations revolves around holding the state and city accountable for developing an actionable plan to house newly released people without a home, to mitigate any re-offenses, and to keep those on parole held accountable. On the topic of housing for those released from prison, Sanchez noted that “we need to hold empty hotels accountable and business owners that are here in the city that actually care about giving [formerly incarcerated people] the benefit of the doubt.”
Along with the ACLU, there are many grassroots organizations that are striving to provide solutions to release LGBTQ people. SisTers PGH, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit, provides support and resources to LGBTQ people getting out of prison who may be struggling to reintegrate back into society. Nationally, organizations like Black and Pink offer programs like TRANSitions which secures safe housing for formerly incarcerated LGBTQ people living with HIV/AIDS, a demographic particularly vulnerable to infection by COVID-19.
For Corcione and others sympathetic to the cause, these problems will only be solved by large scale, systemic reform. “We can decarcerate once and for all by abolishing prisons,” said Corcione, “We can house the homeless by providing accessible housing and dismantling the existing for-profit housing structure.” While it may be a long fight to abolish the prison industrial complex entirely, Sanchez is convinced that COVID-19 will bring much needed reform to the criminal justice system. For now, the LGBTQ community must respond to the pressing needs of those most vulnerable to COVID-19, including those currently or formerly incarcerated. Yet, Sanchez was sure to note that “history has shown that, in times of crisis, [the LGBTQ community] has come together to take care of its own” and will again in this time of crisis.
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