Philadelphia activists took to the streets on Monday to advocate for the massive decarceration of Pennsylvania jails amid the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Over 120 cars took part in the car protest aimed at preempting a mass tragedy. The public intervention on behalf of incarcerated individuals ended at Philly’s City Hall.

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, criminal justice reform advocates have been sounding the alarm about what a pandemic could mean for incarcerated individuals. Due to the cramped, and often overcrowded cells, offenders cannot abide by the six to 10-feet social distancing measures suggested by public health officials. And one case of COVID-19 within a prison complex could potentially prove fatal for many.  

On the day of the protest, ESSENCE reported that the first federal inmate, a 49-year-old drug offender, died in Louisiana. That news came a week after it was reported that 38 people across New York City jails tested positive for the novel SARS strain. This week, the first two confirmed cases of COVID-19 were announced in Philadelphia jails. 

“There are over 4000 people in the Philadelphia Jails — the vast majority are people of color,” Malik Neal, Director of the Philadelphia Bail Fund told ESSENCE via email. “Since the beginning of this outbreak, we have helped bring over 40 people home. But it shouldn’t be up to community groups to free our incarcerated neighbors during a pandemic. We need immediate action from our elected officials, and we are willing to take action to make them listen.”

Philadelphia activists point out that the vast majority of incarcerated people are black and brown. Beyond their original unjust detention, individuals and families of color are now at risk of losing their lives.
Philadelphia activists point out that the vast majority of incarcerated people are black and brown. Beyond their original unjust detention, individuals and families of color are now at risk of losing their lives.

Organizers of the Philadelphia car protest say that despite the extreme health risks to incarcerated people and staff, the population in the city’s jails has only decreased by less than 6 percent since the pandemic began. It’s why they have laid out a list of demands for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, and the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania. Among those demands are: Granting parole for all individuals serving a county sentence; Ending the use of cash bail to detain people; Freeing all youth detained in the city’s youth facilities, whether awaiting trial, a violation of probation hearing, or a transfer to a placement. They’ve also asked that ICE be stopped from unlawfully detaining immigrant individuals and families.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania on Monday also filed an emergency request asking the state Supreme Court to use its “King’s Bench” power to release people from county jails. This includes those who are at high risk of serious illness or death if infected by COVID-19 and those who are held pretrial or on short sentences for minor offenses.

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