Originally published on Monday, March 22, 2021, at BayToBayNews.com
Author: Denise Russell

When we reflect on our history, will we be satisfied that we did everything we could have done to protect our vulnerable populations from suffering and death due to COVID-19?

Each of us has faced severe challenges during this pandemic, but, as has been true in every crisis, vulnerable populations experience the brunt of the suffering. Images from nursing homes, shuttered businesses and crowded hospitals reveal unimaginable losses from illness and far too many deaths. We know the financial peril and emotional strains that come from the denied pursuit of goals and barred physical connections with loved ones.

The same is true for one invisible yet often even more vulnerable group. The lives of Delaware’s nearly 4,500 prisoners have also been significantly negatively impacted. To date, over 2,700 inmates and correctional staff combined have tested positive for the virus and 13 men have died from COVID-19 while in the Delaware Department of Correction’s custody.

Like surrounding states that have released certain prisoners to alleviate COVID-19 illnesses and deaths, Delaware can provide a safe, orderly release of inmates who would have earned good-time credit prior to the pandemic interference.

House Bill 37 is a commonsense solution that would enable up to one year of earned good-time credit during a health crisis for eligible inmates. This measure would stop needless punishment, provide space for necessary distancing to mitigate COVID-19 spread in correctional facilities, alleviate strain on prison personnel, reunite families and save precious taxpayer dollars during these economically challenging times.

For almost a year, as the virus has spread and containment efforts have failed, incarcerated people have not only contracted the virus at alarming rates (about 1 in 4 inmates have tested positive), they also have been denied programs, in-person visitations, work and access to everything from parole and commutation hearings to medical and dental attention. There have been sporadic returns to some limited programs and a few essential jobs, but each time cases rise, shutdowns are reinstated for months on end.

Denied opportunity to make progress, each person’s sentence is not only made more punitive, it is also made longer without the usual opportunities to earn good-time credits. No matter one’s behavior, improvements or intentions, program participation and prison jobs are Delaware’s means to earn the maximum good-time credits allowed. These have all but evaporated.

Just as people outside count days until they can leave quarantine and return to their families, the incarcerated and their families have been counting the days until loved ones return home. The Delaware DOC pandemic response has stopped that countdown and unfairly lengthened separations.

Like the vulnerable outside of prisons, this stagnation is causing serious physical, mental and financial suffering for prisoners and their families. Anxiety and lack of purpose fill the days. Compounding the struggle is the fact that for nearly a year, inmates and loved ones have not seen or touched each other in person. Children, parents and significant others still wait.

Would the free five-minute phone call offered to inmates weekly satisfy your commitment to connect with an isolated loved one outside of prison, much less in the more turbulent environment of a correctional facility? Only those with financial means can afford the $7.50 fee per 30-minute videocall, when available.

How many more infections will there be? Who will make it out alive?

Make no mistake: To continue warehousing prisoners is to neglect individuals and their families, using taxpayers’ funding.

As law, HB 37 would safely provide for the release of only those inmates with less than a year of their sentence remaining. Others could earn up to a year off and would be released a little earlier than their lengthier sentences. Reentry services are already in place. Families are ready to finally welcome them home.

And, one day when we look back on this unprecedented pandemic, we will be able to confidently say that yes, we certainly did everything possible to alleviate the suffering for every vulnerable population who lacked the means to protect itself from the devastation of COVID-19.

Denise Russell of Galena, Maryland, is a member of the New Castle County chapter of Smart Justice and the Link of Love prisoner advocacy group. She currently has a loved one incarcerated in Delaware.