In an attempt to alleviate sickness while advocating for prison reform amid the coronavirus pandemic, the nonprofit Last Prisoner Project has created a “Decarcerate Now” petition to convince the federal government to release inmates in the U.S. who have been arrested for or convicted of cannabis crimes. The petition is directed to President Donald Trump and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Overcrowding, as well as a lack of access to medical care and hygiene products, make prisoners susceptible to contracting the COVID-19 disease, said Sarah Gersten, executive director and general counsel for the Last Prisoner Project. Nearly 3% of U.S. inmates are 65 or older, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and many also have underlying health conditions, Gersten says. Older populations and those with underlying conditions are among the most at-risk for getting a serious illness COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
One prisoner at the Rikers Island prison complex in New York has tested positive for COVID-19, while other inmates there have showed symptoms. Meanwhile, two California state prison employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Some inmates have been released in California and Ohio, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he will release 40 inmates from Rikers.
“It’s obvious to advocates right now, and to certain officials and lawmakers, that one of the most common-sense responses to this pandemic would be to release all of those prisoners who are over the age of 65, who have an underlying condition, who are highly susceptible to not just contracting the virus but to facing serious health ramifications, and it obviously could be deadly for those individuals,” Gersten said.
Roughly 500 people had signed the Last Prisoner Project’s petition on change.org as of 4 p.m. EDT on March 20. Gersten said the organization is working to gather as many signatures as possible.
Releasing those arrested for and convicted of cannabis crimes fits in with the organization’s day-to-day mission, Gersten said. “On top of that, we are also in a moment right now where it's urgent and critical that we immediately reduce the populations of folks in correctional facilities across the board, so that might include procedures to release folks certainly that are pre-trial and some other populations that their release might not be permanent,” she said.
In addition to addressing the release of inmates, the Last Prisoner Project has launched a relief fund. The fund will raise commissary funds for medical copays and for inmates to be able to communicate with family and friends through voice and video calls, Gersten said. All of the country’s federal prisons and many state prisons have suspended visitations.
“It is expensive for prisoners to be able to call anyone,” Gersten said. “During this time, we've seen some facilities who have waived those fees. Some of those are public-private partnerships with private telecommunications that own those prison contracts, that have agreed to temporarily waive those fees. But most facilities and most of those private operators have not done that.”
The situation is similar for medical copays. Some states are waiving them, Gersten said, but not all are.
“Another thing that I think is just as critically important, because a lot of the focus is on the federal level, is for folks to contact their state and local officials, contact sheriffs and wardens of local jails, your governor, your state department of corrections,” Gersten said. “Those are facilities that operate independently of the federal government and obviously are much more receptive to hearing from their constituents and their local communities.”
What can cannabis companies do?
In addition to sharing the Last Prisoner Project’s COVID-19 resource page, Gersten said cannabis businesses can choose to donate a percentage of profits from certain product sales to go toward the relief fund. Participating businesses can be promoted on the organization’s site.
Gersten also noted that the Last Prisoner Project has its “Roll it Up for Freedom” program, where dispensaries can put out a box or jar so their consumers can donate to the project. “Right now, those funds are all being earmarked for this COVID-19 fund, which, again, goes directly to the commissaries of our at-risk clients,” she said.
Although some states don’t allow cannabis companies to hire people with certain cannabis-related offenses, others do. Some states, like Illinois, use social equity legislation to incentivize hiring people who have been arrested and convicted for cannabis.
In states where it is legal to hire people who have been through the justice system for cannabis offenses, Gersten says the Last Prisoner Project works with human resources at cannabis businesses to promote employment opportunities and hire those who have been affected. At the same time, the organization works to provide additional support to those employees.
“But in states where that’s not possible, we do a lot of policy work and a lot of legislative reform on ensuring that any state that is going to have any kind of industry, whether that's medical or adult-use, allows for someone with a prior cannabis conviction on their record to get into the industry,” Gersten said. “It is certainly the height of injustice that someone could be so devastated by prohibition, whether that's incarceration or simply having an arrest, and all the collateral consequences that come with an arrest record, that those folks would then not be able to benefit from this industry.”