Letter to the Editor: Steps can be taken to lower COVID-19 numbers in prisons

Editor’s note: The following letter was sent to Gov. John Carney on Dec. 7.

We, the undersigned civil rights, labor rights and faith-based organizations, write to express our deep concern about the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases throughout facilities operated by the Delaware Department of Correction. We are also troubled to hear that complaints about health services, treatment and protection are not being addressed by those who provide direct oversight to correctional operations.

Sensible measures to control the exacerbation of COVID-19 are being taken in just about every industry where there are high concentrations of people in close proximity. However, this doesn’t appear to be as evident within Delaware correctional facilities, where thousands of people are living in environments that can be likened to petri dishes for the spread of this contagious and deadly virus.

Moreover, concerns about the likely possibility of a catastrophic surge in COVID-19 cases throughout Delaware correctional facilities have been brought to your attention on several occasions. In addition to correspondence issued by the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations, the NAACP explicitly communicated this concern within its April 15 and April 17 letters to you and, on May 1, when NAACP executive board members met with you and members of your Cabinet as a result of those letters. To the extent that these warnings were ignored, we have good reason to consider the failure to take any substantive action as contributory negligence on the part of the state of Delaware, which could render severe legal implications.

As such, we propose the following:

• All employees and contractors of the Delaware Department of Correction be required to test for COVID-19 at least once per week, undergo daily temperature checks and wear face masks during their entire shift.

• All employees and contractors of the Delaware Department of Correction who test positive be prohibited from returning to work until they have tested negative.

• All inmates and detainees be provided face masks and other necessary personal protective equipment.

• Emergency measures be implemented to release as quickly and safely as possible the elderly, those incarcerated for violating technical terms of probation, those scheduled to be released within the next 90 days and those who committed nonviolent offenses and have co-morbidities and complex medical needs.

• Parole hearings for all those incarcerated be expedited during this time.

• Emergency measures be implemented to ensure that people released from incarceration have access to enhanced reentry support to include housing, food and health care.

Public health mitigation efforts that have been proven to curb the spread of COVID-19 throughout correctional facilities nationwide include mandatory use of face masks, increased hand hygiene, extensive and frequent testing, isolating infected individuals, accommodating physical distancing and releasing inmates who meet certain qualifications. The actions proposed herein are in alignment with these proven efforts and are long overdue. We urge you to take immediate action in their implementation and look forward to a near-future opportunity to discuss this extremely critical and time-sensitive matter with you in further detail.

Richard Smith, president, Delaware NAACP State Conference of Branches

The Rev. Theodore Henderson, president, Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Greater Dover and Vicinity

Melvin Phillips, president, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists Delaware