In recent weeks, several people who were released from prison due to the spread of the coronavirus have made themselves available to the press to describe the grim, desperate conditions in detention centers across the country.
The crowded quarters in state and federal prisons make effective social distancing nearly impossible in most cases, and numerous prisons throughout the United States have reported COVID-19 outbreaks among imprisoned people and staff members as a result. In some states, including New York and Illinois, authorities have released some people deemed low-risk from select prisons, yet many justice reform advocates in those states say that far too few people have been allowed to leave.
One study conducted by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit organization focused on curbing mass incarceration, found the typical state prison system “has reduced its population by only five percent.”
Basil Powell, 68, was previously sentenced to life without parole for being the getaway driver in a nonfatal gas station robbery nearly four decades ago before Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker commuted his sentence in April.
“The only way I was supposed to come out was in a body bag,” Powell told HuffPost.
“Society is out here and trying to take care of [the coronavirus],” he added, “but you’ve got to look at people who are unable to do it for themselves.”
Jennifer Soble, executive director of the Illinois Prison Project, an organization working to lessen excessive prison sentences that aided Powell’s release, told HuffPost she “can’t say for certain whether or not the governor would have acted as quickly as he did, were it not for the coronavirus.”
Donald Kagan is another formerly incarcerated person who was recently released due to the virus. Kagan, who had previously been released in 2015 after a homicide conviction in 1998, was incarcerated on Rikers Island again for a parole violation before a writ of habeas corpus granted him and several other imprisoned people a reprieve in March. The filing, submitted by the New York Legal Aid Society, sought early release for low-risk parole violators.
Kagan told HuffPost he has become an “essential worker” since his release, using the term for employees whose work has been deemed officially necessary during the pandemic as many businesses remain closed.
“I hope that if anything positive comes out of this whole terrible, terrible, terrible time that the world is experiencing right now as far as corrections, it’s that a lot of people are safe to release back into society that should have otherwise probably been released a long time ago,” Kagan said.
“It took ― unfortunately ― a pandemic for there to be some serious discussion about an action taken into releasing these people.”
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