The Journal Gazette
Saturday, March 28, 2020 1:00 am

Local women fighting for fragile prisoners

Mother, daughter seek releases amid threat from virus

JAMIE DUFFY | The Journal Gazette

A local mother and daughter are helping lead a fight to release elderly, medically fragile and nonviolent inmates from Hoosier prisons because of the health threat posed by the coronavirus. 

Emily Bernard, a health care administrator, and Jasmine Lovelace, law student at IUPUI in Indianapolis, are part of IDOCWatch, a prisoner advocacy group conducting a phone campaign asking people to call Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and Robert Carter, commissioner of the Indiana Department of Correction, and demand release of these prisoners.

Holcomb said Friday his administration is not considering early release of prisoners from the state's prisons. 

“Right now the prisons and jails throughout the country are potential disaster zones for a widespread outbreak. Indiana has the most overcrowded corrections system in the country. Its medical care is run by incompetent private corporations. It is not a matter of if, but when the crisis breaks out. Action must be taken now,” a statement on IDOCWatch's Facebook page reads.

Elsewhere in the United States, prisoners have been released to reduce the risk, according to many news reports.

“California, Illinois, Ohio and Philadelphia have already started to release hundreds of inmates,” Lovelace said last week.

Nick Greven, an IDOCWATCH founder, pointed to inmate releases in Oakland, California; Santa Rita County Jail in Alameda, California; Cuyahoga County Jail in Cleveland; and Rikers Island in New York, where disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was incarcerated before being transferred to an upstate New York prison.

News reports said the 68-year-old Weinstein had contracted the coronavirus.

Hoosier prisons incarcerate 1,681 men and women from Allen County out of nearly 27,000 prisoners, according to IDOC's March 2020 Offender Population Report.

The report also indicates that 135 people with Felony 6 level convictions are being held at the Allen County Jail on behalf of the state. 

Allen County has the second-highest number of incarcerated people statewide, second only to Marion County with 5,381, according to the same report. 

Margaret Auxier, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Correction, said Thursday that the department “has limited authority to release offenders sooner than their sentencing order.”

“However, the department will prioritize without delay the modification of any sentence a court may order in each case,” Auxier added. 

When asked if any inmates had been tested or tested positive for the coronavirus, Auxier responded: “No DOC inmates have tested positive,” adding the IDOC is adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interim guidance on management for the coronavirus in correctional and detention facilities. 

This month, Auxier said visitors and offenders would be screened for the coronavirus, but since then on-premise visitors have been stopped. Inmates are now allowed two free phone calls a week of up to five minutes through April 14. 

If offenders are believed to be infected, they are isolated and taken to a local emergency room if severely ill, Auxier added.

An Indiana DOC executive directive issued March 16 on the coronavirus surveillance and management includes separating ill offenders and implementing social distancing when a few offenders are ill, according to the DOC's website. Isolation housing units will occur with a “substantial number of offenders who are ill.” 

Bernard and Lovelace take issue with the idea of social distancing inside prisons.

Cells are 8 by 11 feet, so social distancing of at least 6 feet is impossible in prisons, particularly when they are overcrowded, they said.

Hand sanitizer, which is over the limit of alcohol allowed inside prisons and jails, is not allowed but is available for confinement officers at the Allen County Jail, said Capt. Steve Stone, Allen County Sheriff's Department spokesman. 

IDOCWatch is not only advocating for the release of “all vulnerable, senior, and immuno-compromised inmates, but for “health care on request and without co-pay” for inmates.

The public operates under the perception that health care is free in prison, Bernard said, but prisoners are required to pay copays to prison health providers.

People are also under the impression that inmates are safer inside, but Bernard says that is a misconception.

“There's constant exposure with the people coming in and out,” she said. 

Local mother Rebecca Lewis said she worries even more about her son, DeWayne Lewis, 45, now that the coronavirus could be part of his incarceration. 

Her son spent five years and two months in the Allen County Jail awaiting federal sentencing on drug dealing charges and was moved to the Pulaski County Jail, where he was scheduled for sentencing April 3, she told The Journal Gazette. 

His sentencing has been delayed until June because of the virus, keeping him in what she considers unsanitary conditions, Lewis said. Her son told her the jail employees are “wiping things down” and sanitizing. 

“I just wish we could get him home. He could be on home detention with a bracelet. No one would come in and no one would get out,” said Lewis, who over the years has lost nearly 100 pounds because of his incarceration. 

“We are praying and praying, and the church family is praying for us. Some days I don't eat. I can't sleep. My nerves are real bad,” she said.

Lewis hopes her son, with more than five years of incarceration under his belt, might get some leniency. 

IDOCWatch is calling for the release of  “all short term prisoners, everyone held pre-trial for low-level offenses, everyone with little time left on their sentences, people eligible for parole, the elderly, and people with underlying health conditions (to be) released from prisons, jails and detention centers immediately to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

For more information on the phone campaign, go to IDOCWatch on Facebook.

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