Letter to Governor Holcomb about COVID and Prisons, Nov. 2020
November 20, 2020

The Honorable Eric Holcomb
Indiana Statehouse
Indianapolis, Indiana

Dear Governor Holcomb,

Congratulations on your re-election. You have earned the trust of the citizens of our state, especially in the midst of the current pandemic. We are grateful for your leadership.  

We are calling upon you, however, to do much more to protect two groups of Hoosiers who are suffering acutely during the pandemic: people who live and work in prisons.

We have learned a great deal about the virus since March. While some initially thought people inside prisons might be safer than those outside, evidence clearly shows that anyone living and working in a confined setting—especially prisons—is at very high risk. Indeed, the Journal of the American Medical Association noted recently that 90 of the 100 worst hot spots for COVID in the nation during the summer were in prisons or jails. The problem extends far beyond prison walls. Prisons and jails have long been known to be potent incubators and disseminators of infectious diseases. A careful study that focused on Cook County Jail this summer found that 16% of all COVID cases in the state of Illinois could be traced back to that jail!

Thus far, at least 35 people imprisoned in Indiana have died of COVID (five in the past week alone) as have three employees. Approximately 2,000 of the state’s 25,000 prisoners have tested positive. Moreover, we are very concerned that the positivity rates for the 13 main adult prisons (minus the two intake units where everyone is tested on arrival) remain extremely high, with a cumulative positivity rate of 30% and much higher rates for some prisons.

The situation has become dire in the past six weeks. Major outbreaks have occurred at Branchville, Indiana Women’s Prison, Miami, Indiana State Prison, New Castle, and Wabash Valley. Fifteen residents and one employee have died since the beginning of October. Many prisons are understaffed and most have lost key senior employees at a time when experience is crucial. At least three times during the pandemic, you have had to call on the national guard to assist prison staff. As exponential growth drives the state infection rate ever higher, we anticipate you may need to call on them again.  

To improve safety for all Indiana residents, and to better protect people living and working in our prisons, we urge you to reduce the current prison population as soon as possible by taking the following measures that we believe most Hoosiers would understand and support:

1.    Release people in prison who have completed more than half their sentence and are due to be released anyway in the coming months unless there are specific, compelling reasons not to release someone. (Based on data available in March, approximately 20% of people in Indiana prisons had completed more than half their sentence AND had fewer than 12 months remaining to serve; 19% had less than 9 months; 14% less than 6 months; 9% less than 3 months.)
2. Release everyone who was convicted under the old criminal code who would have already been released if they had been convicted under the new criminal code (approximately 5% of the population).
3. Release anyone who, according to the CDC, is at exceptionally high risk of dying from SARS-CoV-2 if they contract it and who, due to age or infirmity, pose little risk to those outside. (A good place to start might be to release anyone who has already been recommended by the Parole Board for clemency.)

We are well aware that people in prison are seen by many as less than human and less worthy of protection. Yet we would argue that the state has as great or greater an obligation to protect those it holds captive because they are unable to protect themselves. Indeed, beyond those in the intake units, nearly all of our state’s prison COVID cases are transmitted by employees coming into prisons; once the virus is inside, there is little that the residents can do to avoid it. While we have all had our lives turned upside down by the pandemic, few have experienced such horrific conditions as those in our prisons.
The vast majority of people in our prisons were not sentenced to die there. They are our children, siblings, parents, friends, students, parishioners, neighbors, and fellow Hoosiers. Whatever laws they may have broken, we love and care about them. We urge you to show your compassion and moral leadership during this public health emergency by immediately reducing the number of people in our crowded prisons and releasing all of those you can who are at greatest risk of dying from the virus. Future generations will judge us according to how we treated the most vulnerable among us during the worst of times.

Respectfully yours,

The Undersigned Citizens of Indiana

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