Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

Indiana Advocates Call on Governor to Release Elderly And Infirm Prisoners As Coronavirus Spreads

More than 100 people signed an open letter to Eric Holcomb requesting that he begin releasing people most likely to be seriously harmed or killed by the coronavirus.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb in East Chicago, Indiana on April 19, 2017.Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Advocates in Indiana are calling on Governor Eric Holcomb to release aging and infirm people from the state’s prisons, as jails and prisons across the country brace for the effects of the coronavirus.

In an open letter sent to the governor on Friday, Kelsey Kauffman, founder and emeritus director of the higher education program at the Indiana Women’s Prison; Michelle Daniel, a formerly incarcerated woman and chairperson of Constructing our Futures; and 100 other formerly incarcerated people, prison workers, and volunteers asked Holcomb to take measures to mitigate the harms of the coronavirus on some of the most vulnerable people in the state’s prisons.

“Our first concern is to get the people who are … most likely to die out of the prison if that can be safely done and if they have a safe place to go,” Kauffman said.

Holcomb was not immediately available for comment. 

There are two policy suggestions in the letter.

The first asks the governor to provide all vulnerable people with medical furlough. Kauffman described this as a temporary release from jail or prison to seek medical treatment. Once the spread of the virus is contained, the people who were given medical furlough could return to serving their sentences.

Indiana currently allows for temporary release from incarceration for certain medical issues, with approval from the state Department of Correction.

The other policy outlined in the letter suggests that Holcomb approve compassionate release for as many people in prison as possible. Compassionate release grants a person early release because of a medical condition. Terminal illness is not a requirement for compassionate release in Indiana. Although the governor has final approval of all clemencies, any application must be submitted to the parole board first.

As noted in the letter, other countries with coronavirus outbreaks have taken steps to reduce their prison populations to prevent the spread of the disease. More than 70,000 people were expected to be released from incarceration in Iran. As of Tuesday morning, Iran had reported more than 8,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country and more than 50 people in the country have died because of the illness.

Prisons and jails keep people confined in close quarters for extended periods of time, which makes them especially vulnerable to the rapid spread of communicable diseases like coronavirus. The rate of tuberculosis, for example, has been reported to be twice that of the general public in state prisons and 10 times that of the general public in local jails, according to a study published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly three times as many people in state and federal prisons in the United States died between 2001 and 2016 because of respiratory illness than homicide.

Mass incarceration will likely amplify the effects of coronavirus beyond prison walls. Nearly 5 million people flow in and out of jails across the United States every year. Even a short stay in jail can expose the person to coronavirus which in turn can expose others upon their release. Jail staff also are susceptible to contracting coronavirus and may expose others outside of the jail.

That’s why Kauffman is also recommending that Indiana reduce the number of people being admitted into jails. She plans to send a follow-up letter to the governor focused on reducing the use of pretrial incarceration to curb the spread of coronavirus.

She noted that many people who are held in prisons and jails do not pose a risk to public safety. The number of people held in local jails pretrial in Indiana has roughly tripled since the late 1980s.

“If you really want to spread the disease, one thing is to keep your jails packed full and continue sending people [to jail] for things other than really serious [offenses],” Kauffman said.