by Frances Gilmore, Montgomery County Healthcare Rights Committee
We’ve all experienced quarantine now, not bad for those with roomy living space, very tough for families crowded into small spaces, for undocumented families receiving no government benefits, and for the unhoused community.
But imagine quarantine in a cage. That’s what thousands of people are experiencing in Pennsylvania’s state prisons. Imagine this fate if you are old, sick, or in prison for a very minor offense. Your prison time could be a death sentence, as COVID-19 spreads. A group of deeply concerned residents began a 2-week hunger strike on May 28 to demand the release of large groups of prisoners. PPF-PA is one of dozens of groups endorsing the strike.
Here are excerpts from the opening of their letter to Gov Wolf:
“…We demand that you take immediate action to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania prisons and prevent the unnecessary deaths of potentially thousands of people….You took an important first step by using your constitutional power of reprieve to make 1,800 people eligible for release from Pennsylvania prisons. However, in the six weeks since you signed your reprieve, only 153 people have been released. Your response to this situation is negligent.
We are asking you to take additional urgent action to protect the lives of thousands of people before it is too late. There are currently 45,654 people locked in Pennsylvania state prisons, where social distancing is impossible and access to medical care is severely limited. Incarcerated people are more medically vulnerable than the general population, with approximately 40% suffering from a chronic health condition….We know that you, Tom Wolf, have full unlimited power of reprieve….In your hands, you hold the lives of more people than the entire population of your hometown of York. We will make this known with our entire bodies until you use your powers to prevent these deaths…”
Here is a summary of the group’s demands:
Demand 1: Accelerate the release of the 1,800 individuals eligible under the reprieve order signed April 10.
Demand 2: Expand the reprieve order by offense type, time served, age, medical conditions and include people incarcerated for technical violations of parole, which would otherwise not be considered crimes.
Demand 3: Stem the tide of admissions to state prisons by expanding the order of reprieve to suspend sentences for new technical violations of parole or probation.
Demand 4: Sign all three commutation applications for commutation of individuals sentenced to life without parole, all recommended by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.
Demand 5: Ensure that individuals released from custody have access to safe housing, food, and medical care.
Demand 6: The Governor and Secretary of Corrections must implement measures to ensure prevention, access to testing, and appropriate medical care for those who remain incarcerated.
Demand 7: Issue an Emergency Removal Order (ERO) on the Berks County Residential Center and release all families to either relatives or a sponsor. BCRC has been operating without a license since 2016, when the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services revoked it. As summarized by Pennsylvania Immigration & Citizenship Coalition, BCRC violates federal and state law.
Individuals can support the strike by:
Using social media to publicize and tweet the governor
Sign up to do a one-day hunger strike in support of the cause
Write your own letter to the governor
Twitter @freepeoplestrike (include @governortomwolf)
Facebook: Free People Strike