Advocates want Indiana prisoners released amid COVID-19 fears

By BREANNA COOPER | Indianapolis Recorder
April 23, 2020

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Rev. Mmoja Ajabu has been advocating for better conditions for Indiana inmates for years, but his cause is more urgent in the wake of COVID-19. As a man of faith, he said his advocacy stems from “serving a God of justice.” But, it’s also personal.

Ajabu’s son is currently serving a life sentence at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. Earlier this month, Ajabu’s sister and brother-in-law died of complications related to COVID-19. Now, Ajabu is worried his son is at risk of contracting the virus if inmates aren’t released to help flatten the curve.

“I’m concerned about everybody,” he said, “but when you talk about my son, obviously my concern for him is greater. That doesn’t minimize my concern for everyone else. I just want humans to be humane towards other humans. If we’re all in this together, let’s be humane.”

Ajabu is one of many pressuring Gov. Eric Holcomb to follow in the footsteps of California and New York in releasing nonviolent offenders to reduce crowding in Indiana prisons and jails. During his daily press conference April 14, Holcomb said he has no plans to follow suit.

In the press conference April 13, Holcomb said inmates are safer in jails and prisons than they would be if they were released.

“We’ve got our offenders in a safe place, we believe,” Holcomb said. “Maybe even safer than just letting them out, to avoid contracting this COVID-19.”

In Indiana, African Americans comprise 30% of the prison population and only 9% of Indiana’s general population, according to Ariella Sult, communications director for ACLU of Indiana.

Issues such as mental health, addictions and difficulties paying bail lead to higher levels of incarceration for African Americans not because Black people commit more crime, said Rosie Bryant, lead organizer for Faith in Indiana, a local chapter of community network Faith in Action.

According to data released by the Indiana State Department of Health, African American Hoosiers make up over 18% of cases throughout the state, and 19% of COVID-19 related deaths.

Advocates say it’s likely this disparity will play out in prisons and jails — especially since cases of the virus are occuring between inmates and employees.

During the April 14 press conference, Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box confirmed the first death of an inmate following a positive COVID-19 test. The man, in his 70s and incarcerated at the Westville Correctional Facility. Since then, 87 inmates at Westville Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19.

According to a representative from the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC), 233 inmates across 10 Indiana correctional facilities tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 21. Seven Indiana inmates have died.

“We urge everyone to contact the governor and get him to reconsider,” said Jane Henegar, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana. “It’s the overwhelming opinion of public health officials across the country that jails and prisons, especially those in Indiana that are overcrowded, are petri dishes for this virus.”

In what seems to be in conflict with Holcomb’s view, Box appears to agree with Henegar.

“Like any congregate living situation, our correctional facilities are ripe for rapid transmission of COVID-19,” she said during a daily press conference.

Beyond inadequate facilities to effectively practice social distancing, prisoners are only tested if they exhibit symptoms. In neighboring Ohio, testing is more comprehensive and more prisoners are tested. Dr. Kristen Dauss, chief medical officer for the IDOC, said in an April 21 press conference there are no plans to replicate the testing procedure in Indiana.

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett is taking a different approach. On March 12, Mayor Joe Hogsett directed Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department to issue summonses as opposed to arresting individuals outright for nonviolent offenses in order to curb overcrowding in Marion County jails. Marion County was one of the first counties in Indiana to begin releasing inmates at the beginning of the pandemic.

Advocates are concerned about everyone inside a jail or prison is at risk of contracting and spreading the virus. As of April 16, IDOC has confirmed that 58 staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

“Those guards come back out in the community and put everyone at risk,” Ajabu said.

The ACLU of Indiana penned an open letter calling for the release those at high risk for complications from COVID-19, as well as those who were set to be released in the near future.

While a pandemic isn’t an ideal time to ease inmates into reentry, several foundations, including Lilly Endowment, created funds to help find housing and resources.

“This pandemic highlights the cost to society of having a system that goes default to incarceration,” Henegar said. “You can speculate a lot about what happens if people are released from jail … but we can’t retain people in jails and prisons that are overcrowded, especially people who have underlying health situations that make them particularly susceptible.”

Ajabu hopes people of all faiths join together to advocate for what he says is the humane course of action.

“Jesus said to put God first,” Ajabu said. “And the second thing is to treat people like you want to be treated. If you are within the Christian faith, Muslim, Ba’hai, Jewish … our foundation of that faith is to treat people like you want to be treated. … I’m asking the governor and Dr. Box to embrace their humanity and set the captives free. I don’t know any clergy members or religious leaders that wouldn’t agree with that.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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