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Delaware Officials Defy Calls To Release Prisoners Who Are At Risk Of Dying From Coronavirus

Prisoners feel like they are ‘sitting ducks,’ said a woman whose boyfriend is incarcerated at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

The James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in New Castle County, Delaware.trconrad2001/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

On Sunday, the Delaware Department of Correction announced that a second person in its custody had died due to complications from COVID-19. The prisoner, Robert Francisco, tested negative for the novel coronavirus twice before he was transported to a hospital, where he was confirmed to have the disease. He died on Saturday evening at the age of 79. His death was preceded by Joseph Russo, a 73-year-old prisoner who also tested negative for the disease twice before being confirmed to have had it.

As the pandemic began to spread across the U.S. in March, advocates called on the DOC and Governor John Carney to provide prisoners with protective equipment and release them to help stop the spread of an outbreak they feared would be inevitable. People over 60, like Francisco and Russo, were among people most in need of being freed, they said. 

Those releases never came. While confirmed American cases climbed and jails and prisons emerged as epicenters this month, Carney and DOC Commissioner Claire DeMatteis challenged calls to change their practices and said that they do not support releasing prisoners. 

In a video interview with State Senator Darius Brown as part of a virtual town hall earlier this month, DeMatteis said, “You’re going to release them into a society that has thousands of cases, so I don’t follow the logic and I don’t see why, because of a virus, it’s a reason to release inmates.” She added, “The people who are saying ‘release inmates’ would say that if you had a virus or not, and they’re using COVID-19 as an excuse. I just don’t follow the logic.”

Carney said in a press conference earlier this month that he did not think that releasing prisoners is “necessary,” citing a reduction in the state’s prison population, according to a Delaware Online report. “There’s more room to spread the inmates out,” Carney said. “There are facilities where we can quarantine and isolate inmates who are COVID-19 positive.”

Javonne Rich, a policy advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, contested Carney’s statement. She said that regardless of the cutback in its population, incarcerated people are still not able to socially distance from one another. Releasing people is key to achieving that, she said. “The best way to reduce the impact of the spread would be to make the prison as empty as possible.” 

In March, the ACLU of Delaware and Coalition for Smart Justice sent a letter to Carney urging him to use his executive powers to either commute the sentences of or issue an executive order to release people who are older than 60, have immune deficiencies, are chronically ill or infirm, or whose sentences will end in the next six months. They also called for the release of people being held pretrial because they cannot afford bail, and people incarcerated on a probation revocation based on a technical violation. 

A spokesperson for Carney did not return requests for comment from The Appeal. 

Along with the two confirmed deaths due to COVID-19, at least 67 prisoners have tested positive for the disease in two facilities. DOC has tested 177 of its approximately 3,800 prisoners, with 100 of those being people who were asymptomatic, according to an agency spokesperson. At least 35 staff members have tested positive at seven facilities, statistics posted by DOC show. The DOC announced Tuesday that it would begin administering rapid tests at Vaughn that could return results in 30 minutes. 

All of the confirmed prisoner cases in the state’s correctional facilities are spread between two places: James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, the state’s largest prison, and Sussex Community Corrections Center. The majority of the cases are at Vaughn, which houses at least 51 people who tested positive, and is the site of the state’s COVID-19 treatment center that will house all Delaware prisoners with confirmed cases.

Inside Vaughn, prisoners feel like they’re “sitting ducks,” said a woman whose boyfriend is incarcerated at the facility. She spoke to The Appeal on the condition of anonymity because she feared retribution from prison officials. “There just is a sense of it’s here and nobody cares. If [prisoners] do say something, they’re faulted as if they’re children.” 

DOC distributed masks over the weekend to prisoners at Vaughn and the Sussex Community Corrections Center, backtracking on its policy that they would be reserved solely for prisoners in infirmaries, with compromised immune systems, and with high-contact jobs such as food service.

Still, the DOC is refusing to issue masks to prisoners incarcerated in its three other prisons, despite confirmed cases among correctional staff. “It’s a security risk for somebody to be walking around wearing a mask,” DeMatteis said in the interview. “Let alone the contraband they could hide in the mask.” Staff in all facilities are given masks and DeMatteis has said that the agency is willing to reconsider the policy should there be an outbreak. 

Rachelle Wilson, a prison reform activist whose son is incarcerated at Vaughn, told The Appeal that the DOC’s refusal to issue masks is dangerous. “If you refuse to release them, do not attempt to murder them,” she said. “What’s the difference between a face mask and when you wear clothing? You can hide contraband in your uniform.”

Among its precautionary measures, the DOC has said it carries out twice-daily temperature checks and extra cleanings, and quarantines new prisoners before they are released into the population. The agency has said it will not administer hand sanitizer to prisoners and is distributing soap for hand-washing instead. “There’s alcohol in hand sanitizer,” DeMatteis said of its policy. “Inmates try to make alcohol out of everything you can possibly imagine and drink it. It’s just a security risk. It’s a prison, so they’re not going to have hand sanitizer in their cell, no.”

Advocates have cited these policies—along with the conditions that already make incarcerated people vulnerable to the disease, such as living in close quarters, underlying health conditions, and poor medical care—to support their demands for release. There’s also concern over the way COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black prisoners—nearly 60 percent of the state’s prison population is Black, though the state’s population is just 23 percent Black. 

Black people have been shown to contract and die of the disease at a higher rate than white people, according to a Washington Post analysis. These disparities have been attributed in part to the higher prevalence of underlying disease and limited access to care. 

Since Delaware’s correctional system doesn’t include jails, its prisons also house roughly 680 people who are detained pretrial and have not yet been convicted of a crime. State public defenders have filed bail-reduction motions in applicable cases, according to head defender Brendan O’Neill. He told The Appeal that results have been “mixed.” 

“The state and courts have expressed a willingness to be flexible and in some cases they have. In other cases, not so much,” he said. He added that his office has had more success in cases in which a client has been accused of a nonviolent, low-level crime. 

Though Delaware officials have refused to release incarcerated people, Maryland, its neighboring state, has taken a different route. Earlier this month, Governor Larry Hogan signed an executive order fast-tracking the release of 800 prisoners in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19.