During the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 2,700 correctional staff and incarcerated individuals contracted COVID-19 and of those, 13 have died as a result, said ACLU Delaware policy advocate Javonne Rich.
Speaking at a vigil held for those who've died while in the custody of the Delaware Department of Correction, Rich described the uniquely volatile set-up within the prison system that presented an ideal setting for COVID-19 to spread throughout the pandemic.
"People residing and working in correctional facilities have always been uniquely vulnerable to infectious diseases due to the congregate living environment," Rich said. "People who are incarcerated 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 are housed with, or what tools they are given to keep themselves and others safe."
Thirteen individuals facing sentences within the Delaware prison system received a far more severe punishment than they ever deserved, Rich said, and said the population should be decreased to avoid more unnecessary death.
"A prison sentence shouldn't lead to a COVID-19 death sentence, but 13 incarcerated people died from this virus so far," she said. "While Delaware's prison population has experienced a reduction in the last year, all options were not, and have not, been exhausted to ensure that people who are incarcerated can be safe, as well as our communities."
Too often, those who head to prison are cast aside by the community, said state Senator Marie Pinkney (D-New Castle), and positive change will only be achieved when the community, as a whole, refuses to let those individuals fall through the cracks.
"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." Pinkney said. "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 [on] people as they enter into our correctional system."
She said a bill she's been working on with state Representative Melissa Minor-Brown (D-Bear), House Bill 37, looks to address the issue of prison populations by creating a "public health emergency credit" which would apply to sentences as 6 months served for every month in prison during the period such an emergency is declared, up to a one-year reduction in sentence.
"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," she said. "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."
It was a harrowing experience for those on the inside, said former inmate Robert McCann, who watched those around him become ill and expressed the empathy with which he was filled as the situation unfolded.
"It's scary. It's scary to be in there and be counting on somebody else to make sure I'm safe, and they're not even giving me the instruments I need to protect myself...Correction officers that come in into the jail, and it's like they're not taking this serious, almost," McCann said. "It was scary to see people healthy one day, and the next day, come out talking about they don't feel good. And not even just for myself but for them, because it's like, who's gonna help them? Nobody can do nothing. We're limited to anything that we could do to help ourselves."