Delaware bill would cut jail time during health crisis

Supporters say the bill recognizes the extra hardship a public health crisis puts on people who are incarcerated.

The COVID-19 treatment center at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

The COVID-19 treatment center at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center. (Department of Correction)

While all of us have faced restrictions on normal activities over the past year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, people who are incarcerated faced even more stringent limits to their activities behind bars.

It’s been tough for those who share cells, communal recreation, and dining spaces, and in some instances live together in large bunk rooms.

Family visits were canceled. Classes and other programming was halted.

Despite those restrictions, different prisons saw coronavirus cases spike among both the incarcerated population and correctional officers.

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“The conditions of confinement during a public health emergency, like the current one, can be considered more punishing,” said state Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown.

She’s sponsoring legislation that would give incarcerated people extra credit for the time they spend behind bars during a public health crisis. For every month served in such a crisis, their sentence would be reduced by six months under this legislation. The maximum reduction would be one year.

Minor-Brown says those held in Delaware prisons should be compensated for the extra restrictions put in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“This bill is about humanity, this bill is about non-suffering, this bill is about rehabilitation, which is why individuals were sentenced to prison anyway,” she said.

Hakeem Coates was recently released from Howard R. Young prison in Wilmington. He spoke in favor of the bill earlier this month at a forum hosted by the Delaware Center for Justice.

“Once the pandemic hit, and we all had to sit clustered in rooms, it became scary because every Wednesday, they would still bring more people in,” he said. “This is very important, to do what we can to help guys out because I’ve been there.”

After being released last year, Coates was surprised by how much had changed.

“Just to see how it affected life with me being gone for three years, and my mom being older, and [I] can’t have nobody around to see me and be happy I’m home, because I came straight home to another form of incarceration.”

The legislation would apply to both COVID-19 and any future public health emergency, automatically awarding a “public health emergency credit.”

“This bill will move forward release dates for individuals whose release date would come within the next year,” Minor-Brown said. “This will reduce the prison population in an orderly and fair manner, which will relieve pressure on the staff and create better conditions for those individuals who remain incarcerated.”

The state’s prison population has already been reduced, in part, due to the pandemic. As of last May, the Dept. of Correction reported a 10% drop in the number of people held in the state’s system.

Minor-Brown has also submitted an amendment to her bill that would eliminate those convicted of certain crimes from being eligible for the earlier release. Those crimes include murder, rape, continuous sexual abuse of a child, or assault in a detention facility.

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The measure was approved by the House Corrections Committee in January and is now awaiting action on the House floor.

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