ACLU remembers 13 lives lost to COVID in DOC custody over past year

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DOVER — A total of 13 prison inmates died while in custody of the Delaware Department of Correction over the past year after testing positive for the COVID-19 virus.

That’s why Sen. Marie Pinkney, D-New Castle, chairwoman of the Senate Corrections Committee, is working on moving a couple of House bills forward to help reward prisoners who survived despite being forced to live in crowded prison cells by giving them reduced time on their prison sentences.

Sen. Pinkney was one of the speakers at the ACLU of Delaware and Campaign for Smart Justice virtual vigil Thursday night that marked a “Year of Loss in Delaware’s Prisons.”

A year ago today, Joseph Russo passed away from COVID-19 complications, becoming the first Delawarean to die while in custody of the DOC. He was incarcerated at James T. Vaughn Correctional Facility near Smyrna at the time.

Since Russo’s death, 12 more Delawareans have lost their lives to COVID-19 while in DOC custody: Robert Francisco, James Waller, Jim Hunter, Jr., Richard Roth, Peter Schellinger, Joseph R. Slider, Jose Rivera, John W. Rosciolo, Jackie R. Lovett, Fred J. Clanton, Charles R.J. Patterson, and Michael Harris.

“This event will provide a space to reflect on the lives of people who have died, and those who endured COVID-19 in the past year, while living in Delaware’s prisons,” said Emily Evans, president of the New Castle County Smart Justice Volunteer Chapter, who served as the host of the vigil.

Javonne Rich, policy advocate for the ACLU of Delaware, said more than 2,700 correctional officers and inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 over the past year. She said conditions inside the prison facilities are ripe for transmission of a virus.

“We recognize that being in a prison in the middle of a pandemic alone is something that makes you a lot more susceptible to contracting the virus and to losing your life as a result of it because the conditions within prisons are just not there to make people safe, the way they deserve to be,” Ms. Rich said.

“People residing and working in correctional facilities have always been uniquely vulnerable to infectious diseases due to the congregate living environment.

“(Inmates) are particularly vulnerable because they can only protect themselves, so much as the state or the Department of Correction allows them to. They do not have control over how many people they interact with, or house with, or what tools they’re given to keep themselves and others safe.”

Right now, Sen. Pinkney is trying to get a couple of House bills passed that will reward and help protect prisoners.

“It really is an honor to chair this (Senate Corrections) Committee because it is a place where I think so often so many people get forgotten,” Sen. Pinkney said. “So many of our Delawareans and people across this country get forgotten when they enter the prison system for no other reason than we don’t put enough value there and I think that it’s as simple as that.

“I think there are a lot of ways to sugarcoat why it happens but I think that it boils down to we don’t put enough care and value to people as they enter into our correctional system.”

She said that has been particularly true throughout the pandemic and is a strong advocate of House Bill 37 and House Bill 7, which have both passed the House Corrections Committee.

“The one that most people have been really, really excited about is House Bill 37,” the senator said. “It actually came over from an idea that started in New Jersey where they saw some success with (giving inmates) early release credits.

“What it does is say that when individuals were sentenced to our prisons, they were not sentenced to serve time during a pandemic. That was not a part of their sentencing and that is not a part of their lifestyle. No one deserves to be placed in a place where they’re more susceptible to contracting the virus.

“Recognizing that, we wanted to make sure that we provided an opportunity for those individuals who have been sentenced during the pandemic to receive early release credits simply because they are serving time during a pandemic, because no one should be put at risk in that way.”

House Bill 7 is an amendment to a current existing body of the Adult Health Care Review Committee, which was already put into place in that the committee really does the work of studying health care in the state’s prisons and studies cases of those who are incarcerated who have passed away, and who have significant health conditions or concerns.

“This body of individuals who are ranged from psychologists to health care providers, review all of those (health care) cases and talk about what could have been done better, what they need to do differently in the future and how they can make improvements in the care that they provide,” said Sen. Pinkney. “I saw some opportunities to make that review board stronger by adding more practitioners who have backgrounds in corrections by adding a forensic psychiatrist, colleges, and by giving ourselves the ability to vote on what happens. We wrote in that the corrections chair in the House and the Senate both have the opportunity to be voting members of those boards to have a stronger voice in what’s going on in those rooms (House and Senate)."

Devon Clark, a former inmate at the Howard R. Young Correctional Facility in Wilmington, said conditions for the prisoners have been deplorable throughout the pandemic with a revolving door of prisoners coming in and out of crowded prisons that makes it easier for inmates to catch the virus.

That, and a lack of getting able to be tested for the coronavirus and the general absence of cleaning things such as telephones after prisoners use them and surfaces, makes it a wonder there haven’t been more deaths in Delaware’s prisons during the pandemic, according to Mr. Clark.

“They wouldn’t see us. Nobody told us they didn’t have the money to test,” Mr. Clark said. “So, what they did they isolated instead of containing first and then isolated. They probably had more control on the situation and then they started moving everybody around.

“They were shuffled into the prisons for no reason when all they had to do is contain and isolate. This is why you have so many people dying in these prison systems to COVID.”

Sen. Pinkney offered her condolences to the families of the 13 inmates who have died over the past year.

“I’d like to offer up my forgiveness and my sorrow to those lives that have been lost to those families that have lost loved ones, and to let them know that there are people here in the General Assembly that are fighting to do everything we can to keep people safe,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that House bills 37 and 7 passed the Senate Corrections Committee. They have passed the House Corrections Committee, not the Senate.