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R.I. prisons face rampant COVID-19 spread amid calls for decarceration

One former incarcerated person described rodents, mold and poor ventilation in the State’s maximum security prison

In Rhode Island, there have been 10 reported COVID-19 cases for every 100 people, according to the New York Times. But the rate in state prisons is currently more than five times that, with 51 cases per 100 incarcerated people as of Jan. 14, according to the Rhode Island Department of Corrections’ Facebook page.

As the RIDOC grapples with continued outbreaks of COVID-19 within its corrections facilities, the Decarcerate Now Coalition has called for measures to immediately reduce the number of incarcerated people in Rhode Island prisons, according to Anusha Alles, a staff organizer at Direct Action for Rights and Equality. DARE is a member of the Coalition, and is calling for the prompt release of incarcerated people who are awaiting trial and for those who are medically vulnerable. 

Despite calls for immediate decarceration, the RIDOC said that prisons are not overcrowded. Currently, R.I. prisons are “operating at just under 52% capacity; that is the lowest it’s been in decades; space is not a concern at this point,” Jhomphy Ventura, chief of information and public relations officers for the DOC, wrote in an email to The Herald.

Early release and bail requirements “fall under the purview of the court, not RIDOC,” Ventura added. The number of incarcerated people set to be released went down from 2,902 in 2019 to 2,157 in 2020, according to Ventura.

In December, R.I. Attorney General Peter F. Neronha’s office opposed a push from state public defenders and the R.I. Public Defenders’ Office to require judges to release incarcerated pre-trial defendants who hadn’t posted bail, unless under extraordinary circumstances. 

In a written response to calls to amend bail guidelines reviewed by The Herald, Deputy Attorney General Adi Goldstein and appellate lawyer Christopher Bush wrote that they “agree that individuals who pose no threat to public safety and present a low risk of non-appearance should not be held.” But they noted that fewer than 50 incarcerated people are held at the R.I. Adult Correctional Institution, the state’s maximum security prison, due to lack of paying bail. Only four of those individuals, Goldstein and Bush added, are being held for what the DOC deems “nonviolent” offences. 

Ventura said the DOC has taken “numerous steps” to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. The DOC has distributed masks, issued a mask mandate for staff and implemented strict sanitation protocols. In addition, all incarcerated people and staff are tested for COVID-19 every one to three weeks, and the DOC utilizes “camera-assisted” contact tracing, has modified schedules of incarcerated individuals to encourage social distancing and has suspended community visits.

Older incarcerated people have also begun to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as part of Rhode Island’s distribution plan, according to the Providence Journal.

But Alles said the coalition has received information from close contacts of individuals who are incarcerated that contradicts statements from the DOC. For instance, she said, she has heard reports of incarcerated people receiving only one mask for the majority of the pandemic and a correctional officer returning to work seven days after testing positive for COVID-19. 

When contacted for comment, Ventura said the claims were inaccurate. “Our health safety protocols have made RIDOC one of the safest correctional institutions in the nation,” he wrote.

According to the DOC, as of Jan. 14, about 51.2 percent of individuals who are incarcerated in RIDOC facilities have tested positive for COVID-19. Roughly 94.6 percent of incarcerated people in maximum security — 332 out of 351 total individuals — have tested positive for COVID-19. 

“Prison has been an abusive and unhealthy place for a really long time,” Alles said. “The outbreak just makes (decarceration) that much more urgent.”

Leonard Jefferson, a member of DARE, said the Rhode Island ACI is “unfit for human habitation.” Jefferson served time in the Rhode Island ACI from 1973 to 1984 and from 2013 to 2019.

According to Jefferson, the prison hosts excessive mold, rodents, vermin, birds and poor ventilation. He added that incarcerated people are separated by bars rather than walls, making disease spread easier. 

“Correctional facilities are not islands operating without outside contact,” Ventura wrote. In addition to possible exposure from correctional officers, he wrote incarcerated people could contract COVID-19 from “court visits, outside medical appointments with waiting rooms, visits from clergy, teachers and mentors, counselors, attorney visits, social workers and more.”

In December, 20 state legislators co-wrote a letter to state officials in support of the demands of Decarcerate NOW, according to R.I. State Senator Tiara Mack ’16.

The letter called for an official quarantine process for incarcerated individuals who test positive, as well as a formal process for family members to report information that contradicts the DOC’s stated policies. The letter also advocates for additional testing and personal protective equipment in prisons, transparency around COVID-19 data reporting and priority for incarcerated people and prison staff in the state’s vaccine distribution plan. 

Soon after, the DOC issued a response claiming that many of these practices are already in place. For instance, the response states that since May 2020, all incarcerated people have received at least two masks and that all asymptomatic incarcerated people are being tested frequently. The DOC also said that family members are already able to report concerns via email, and all reports to date have received a response from either the Assistant Director, Warden or Deputy Warden. 

Still, according to Mack, “the prison setting, by design, is not made for social distancing.”



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