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April 22, 2020

The Virginia COVID-19 Justice Coalition appreciates Gov. Ralph Northam and the General Assembly for taking first steps in an effort to release people who are incarcerated in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, these steps alone are inadequate. Further, more decisive action is imperative as a matter of racial justice. The compounding inequities in the spread of COVID-19 and criminal justice policy mean Virginia risks taking a step backwards and disproportionately burdening Black & Brown communities.  

“No public health plan can be considered a success if it leaves a hot spot for this disease to spread like wildfire,” said Kofi Annan, CEO of The Activated People & leader of the Equity Agenda Coalition. “The budget amendment leaves out vulnerable people like the elderly and those with medical conditions that could make COVID-19 deadly. We appreciate that the governor and General Assembly have acknowledged this crisis and taken a first step to address it, but without going further, more lives will be lost.” 

We fully support the legislature’s passage of Gov. Northam’s emergency clause to House Bill 33 and Senate Bill 793, known as the “Fishback” bills, which will move the effective date from July 1 to today. The Fishback bills will give the opportunity for immediate parole to the 367 people whose juries were not told about the abolishment of parole when they imposed sentences. There is no reason to delay justice for those who endured this unfair sentencing process.

The General Assembly also passed budget amendment 21, item 391, which will offer the potential for release to anyone in prison who is within one year of the end of their sentence. While the Coalition agrees that anyone in this group should be released immediately, the budget amendment is narrow and grants all discretion to the Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran during this emergency. Despite the rapid spread of illness and the death of a 49-year-old woman, the secretary has argued that more people haven’t been released because state prisons are “able to achieve quarantine and they’re abiding by the CDC guidelines.” 

The Secretary’s assertions are contradicted, by among other things, the announcement of 25 occurrences of COVID-19 among residents at the Bon-Air Juvenile Correctional Center - a number some families have called conservative.

“When we talk about ‘public health’ and ‘public safety’ we have to remember that includes our loved ones who are incarcerated. They were not sentenced to die. They’re part of the public too,” said Arjanae Avula, whose younger brother is a resident at the Bon-Air Juvenile Correctional Center.

In light of the secretary’s lack of appreciation for the severity of current prison conditions, we are concerned that too few people will be released and are concerned that too few people are getting tested. The Coalition has received dozens of complaints from people who are incarcerated in state facilities and their loved ones regarding lack of social distancing, adequate cleaning supplies, and lack of health care, including people with COVID-19 symptoms having their medical grievances torn up or ignored.

Early indicators suggest that Black Virginians are disproportionately dying of COVID-19 and are incarcerated in Virginia at disproportionate rates. We urge the governor to standardize, collect and release aggregate demographic data of COVID-19 infections, testing and deaths.

Any person who is in a state or local custodial facility and does not pose a demonstrable imminent threat of bodily harm to others should be released immediately. We are pleased that the governor took steps toward that goal, however half-measures will cost lives. We encourage the governor to use his full authority including clemency power to finish the work that was started today.