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State Advocacy News: Prisons, Protest and COVID-19

May 05, 2020
Despite the pandemic, advocates are finding new ways to continue challenging mass incarceration through virtual events and social distance gatherings.

In past times organizers targeting governors and parole boards to release life-sentenced prisoners might protest and rally at the state capital. But being good advocates also means working to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, which inhibits congregating in protest or mass demonstrations. In light of this new reality, challenging mass incarceration continues through virtual town halls and even continuing to gather while social distancing.

Virtual Town Halls

Groups have convened virtually over the last few months to create connection for members and educate the general public. Online events have drawn hundreds of participants and allowed for virtual strategizing. Gamaliel Network, a national group that  trains faith and community leaders to build political power, held a Decarceration Virtual Rally several weeks ago, as well as continuing to convene weekly strategy meetings. Safe and Just Michigan hosted an online event focused on state commutations during the COVID-19 pandemic that was attended by Alabama advocates too.

Online Lobby Visits

State advocates met online with various authorities in recent weeks to demand releases for persons from prisons. They have scheduled online meetings with corrections officials, legislators and governors’ offices. Some groups are taking traditional lobby days online given the need to work from home. All of Us or None has organized a legislative lobby day, Quest for Democracy, for years. Given the circumstances, this year’s Q4D Lobby Day will be online. Organizers are coordinating virtual lobby visits to improve public policy for formerly incarcerated Californians and their loved ones. Similar virtual legislative meetings have been scheduled in MissouriOhio, and Wisconsin.

New Protests

Social distancing has led grassroots groups to organize demonstrations using cars rather than marches. Groups in ArizonaIndiana, and Washington, DC mobilized caravans to drive designated routes with signage taped to vehicle exteriors that read “No One Deserves to Die in a Pandemic” and “Free Our People,” with some of these actions taking place at a local jail or state capital.

Photo Credit: California's Drop LWOP Campaign

Photo Credit: California’s Drop LWOP Campaign

Other News

  • California – Early release for at least 3,500 individuals was expedited while new admissions from county jails were suspended.
  • Connecticut – Officials have reduced correctional population to lowest capacity in several decades, attributed to policy changes related to the novel coronavirus.
  • Florida – Rights restoration lawsuit moving forward.
  • Georgia – Nearly 100 youth released to prevent COVID-19 spread.
  • Illinois – Gov. JB Pritzker approved 20 commutations following approval by the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. Other releases include individuals scheduled release from prison within several months.
  • Maryland – Escalating advocacy resulted in an executive order to approve early releases.
  • New York – Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to release pregnant prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses who are within six months of release.
  • Oregon – Parole officials considering early release of nearly 70 persons to reduce prison population. Last month corrections officials estimated nearly 6,000 persons would need release in order to effectively implement social distancing to manage COVID-19 spread.
  • Virginia – Lawmakers approved amendment authorizing early release for an estimated 2,000 individuals with less than a year left on their prison term.
  • Washington – Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order authorizing early release for persons sentenced to nonviolent offenses, with releases for estimated 1,000 persons.
  • Wisconsin – Family members of incarcerated residents targeted the governor in support of releases to address health concerns.
 
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