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Groups applaud the county’s first steps but say a 50% reduction is necessary to meet basic public health and safety needs
Community and social advocacy groups including Make the Road, CADBI Lehigh, and Lehigh Valley Stands Up are joining Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley in calling for the release of a larger number of people from Lehigh County Jail during the COVID-19 crisis. While County officials announced on March 20 that they plan to release some people from the jail soon, the groups are calling for a larger reduction of at least 50% of the jail population in order to alleviate some of the dangers that the jail presents during the crisis.
“Public health experts are unanimous that jails–with hundreds of people living in tight, confined quarters and very limited in-house medical care–are potential powderkegs for pandemics,” said Shane Falwell from End Mass Incarceration Lehigh Valley. “The Lehigh County Jail has around 700-750 people in it at any given time, and they have nothing but in-cell quarantines and a handful of beds to deal with illnesses. Releasing a tenth or even a quarter of the people in those conditions doesn’t relieve the pressure of closed confinement or make the jails any less dangerous during a pandemic.”
The groups emphasized that the release of only small numbers of people could have catastrophic consequences. “This isn’t a distant thing that we can take chances with. COVID-19 is rapidly spreading throughout New York City’s jail, Riker’s Island; and in China, which had a much more controlled and coordinated response to the outbreak, at least 550 people in four different prisons were infected,” said John Rowland, of the Abolitionist Law Center. “We really can’t pretend that something horrific isn’t very possible and even likely in these circumstances, or that letting a small amount of people go is a meaningful caution against that threat.”
While they welcome the first steps taken by the County, the groups are calling for County officials to follow Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley’s recommendation to release almost all people who are being held pre-trial, as well as those who are being held on technical probation violations, people aged 55 years and over, and those with health issues that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19. These populations, they argue, are not threats to the community and are bigger dangers to the community inside than outside of a jail during the crisis.
“The majority of the total population locked up at the jail is people who aren’t serious threats to public safety,” said Ashleigh Strange, Regional Organizer for Lehigh Valley Stands Up. “They’re there either because they can’t pay bail or made a small mistake while on probation. With the public safety risk low, and the public health risks extraordinary, we should do the obvious best thing for our County and community and release as many people as possible.”
County officials had already been discussing the release of certain inmates when County Controller Pinsley released his letter, which was addressed to President Judge Edward Reibman, District Attorney Jim Martin, and Public Defender Kim Malouky. The letter emphasized that the costs of providing adequate healthcare during an outbreak, as well as the strain on the local medical systems of caring for prison populations, could be enormous. “The reduction of the prison population will greatly reduce the potential stress placed upon available medical facilities…We are in a situation where adding inmates to the system may increase the danger to our community.”
Pinsley agrees with the goal of a 50% reduction, noting that a number like that would allow the county to follow proper social distancing protocols within the prison. “Allowing that number of people out of the jail during the crisis would let us follow the advice and practices recommended by scientists and epidemiologists as our best safeguards against this very dangerous virus. It doesn’t solve the problem completely but it would greatly help prevent the sort of public health and financial crisis that an outbreak might cause for the county.”
The groups added that there is a moral as well as practical urgency to County officials taking these actions. “As people who provide care and services to our community every day, we don’t want suffering and deaths that could have been avoided on our consciences,” said Anthony Downing, Co-Chair of Lehigh Valley DSA. “We can’t punish people for small offenses by forcing them to be sitting ducks in the worst pandemic the country has seen in over a hundred years. What sense does it make to let people from our community suffer, and even die, in the name of public safety?”
The groups calling for these demands are Make the Road Pennsylvania, an immigrant and Latinx rights organization, Lehigh Valley DSA, a chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, Lehigh Valley Stands Up, an independent political power organization, the Abolitionist Law Center, which organizes and litigates on a variety of justice issues, and CADBI Lehigh, a coalition of groups that works on mass incarceration issues throughout Pennsylvania.
Information provided to TVL by:
Regional Organizer at Lehigh Valley Stands Up