PHILADELPHIA, PA December 17, 2020 —In response to the high rate of COVID-related deaths among people incarcerated in Pennsylvania jails and prisons, Senator Sharif Street and Senator-elect Nikil Saval hosted “Free the Vulnerable,” a press event to shed light on the need for swift action to protect those who are incarcerated. 

The need, and the urgency, are vast. The current rate of COVID-related deaths within the prison system has tripled from the spring and summer. 

“It is our responsibility as government to work collectively to meet our primary charge, protecting communities. This includes those who are incarcerated many of which are at pronounced risk as they are unable to socially distance. Many more are geriatric and aging prisoners,” said Senator Street. “The temporary reprieve program has fallen short and the pandemic has worsened, straining our resources and testing our resolve. We must do more to bring relief to the men and women in our correctional facilities.” 

Senator-elect Saval added, “Under the threat of the pandemic, every sentence is now a potential death sentence. That’s not justice. Immediate action must be taken to free the vulnerable and save lives.”

Standing with organizers from ACLU Pennsylvania, Amistad Law, and Reclaim Philadelphia and with family members of incarcerated people, Street and Saval spoke about the need for immediate action from Governor Tom Wolf and the Department of Corrections to protect those who are elderly, those who are medically vulnerable, and those who are near the end of their sentences.  

Kris Henderson, executive director of Amistad Law Project, expressed that the current staggering numbers of COVID cases and COVID-related deaths was anticipated. 

“Back in March we warned Governor Wolf that if he did not act decisively, COVID-19 would wreak havoc on PA’s prison system. The surge inside the Department of Corrections right now is worse than what we saw in the spring,” said Henderson. “Social distancing isn’t possible in prison. Governor Wolf must use his reprieve power to allow vulnerable people to shelter in place with loved ones for the safety of people in prison, for the safety of prison staff, and for the safety of community members in the areas around PA’s prisons.”

Lorraine Haw, best known as Mrs. Dee Dee, is a long-time organizer against mass incarceration. This struggle is personal for her. Her son has been incarcerated for nearly 27 years. 

“The day my son got incarcerated is the day I got incarcerated. I’m doing time with my son,” said Mrs. Dee Dee. The journey from her home in Philadelphia to where her son is incarcerated at Smithfield is more than four hours. She has not seen him since before the start of the pandemic. Mrs. Dee Dee acts as a support for many of the men she has met through her advocacy and is concerned for their safety. She emphasized, “Things are not good.”

“We already know that the criminal legal system does not value the lives of those who interact with the system, especially those of color and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Danitra Sherman, campaigns director at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “In a pandemic, these injustices can amount to a death sentence. It is incumbent on Governor Wolf and all decision-makers within Pennsylvania’s criminal legal system to protect the health and safety of those people incarcerated by the commonwealth. So far, our leaders have largely failed to do so.”