There is no disputing the global impact of COVID-19. Bearing the weight of such despair, the cracks in our judiciary begin to show, in turn expressing an underwhelming response to their most vulnerable constituents. Within the prison system, the judicial system refutes the fleeting promise of granting such leniency to nonviolent crimes — and specifically, nonviolent cannabis prisoners.
Characterized by overpopulation, uninhabitable living conditions, and guided by a contentious healthcare response, prisons make up the most susceptible environment to viral exposure. As the current administration’s clemency tactics regress towards buzzwords, hubs of political banter, and friction, it leaves the community itself powerless in their plight. They ask for justice, decency, and the right to stay alive.
Fortunately, following the legalization of Cannabis in multiple states, organizations like the Last Prisoner Project (LPP) have made it their mission to redefine justice reform for nonviolent offenders. The dangers of spreading COVID-19 has catapulted the dire need for clemency. Prisoners like Edwin Rubis shed light on the current state of his incarceration:
“In reality, we are at the mercy of our captors. If any one of us contracts the virus, he is isolated along with his cell-mate in an 8 by 12 prison cell without adequate medical attention. The 22 years I have served so far behind prison walls would not compare to the agony of dying alone in such a horrid place of hopelessness. Pray for me. Pray for those who are with me. That’s pretty much all that can be done at this time.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, LPP has been working tirelessly to preserve the rights of prisoners. With its grounding mission in mind, LPP provides assistance for those incarcerated, and advocates for the emergency release of individuals at risk, who face unwarranted peril amid overcrowded prison environments. Luke Scarmazzo, a nonviolent prisoner, is serving 22 years for operating a legal cannabis dispensary. He speaks on the additional costs rationed to prisoners during this time:
“The good thing is that they are increasing our phone minutes from 300 to 500 a month. But BOP does not offer free phone calls. They cost $3.15 for 15 minutes. I’m told they are going to re-evaluate the situation in 30 days but I don’t see the pandemic getting better in a month. I actually see it getting much worse before it gets better.”
In response, LPP established a fund which funnels directly into their constituents’ commissary accounts, rendering the additional funding necessary for medical care, cleaning and hygienic products, phone calls, or smart visitation (while in-person visitation windows are suspended). Fate Winslow, a nonviolent prisoner, serving life for selling $20 of cannabis, elaborates on the dangers of spreading COVID-19:
“An inmate was taken out of here a few nights ago. He was really ill, but we are not sure what was the cause of his sickness. He slept a few beds down from me, so yes I am scared. All the guards here are wearing masks, but they are not providing masks for us. “
LPP works with a number of state-level advocates to push forward emergency release efforts. This includes in Colorado, where LPP’s actions led to Governor Polis’ signing an executive order to expand the use of special needs parole for at-risk inmates. LPP continues to work closely with the Colorado DOC and local re-entry organizations to expedite releases under the state’s new order.
The immediate response by the LPP has forged a foundational impact within the correctional community. Craig Cesal, an inmate serving life without parole for cannabis, expressed his gratitude towards LPP’s efforts:
“One thing they have done is waive the $2 medical co-pay for checks or treatment of the virus. I think that is to keep from discouraging someone from getting checked, to avert paying the $2. I am quick to condemn bad moves by the FBOP, but although not perfect, they really are trying to protect the population. Finally, thank you for your support! It’s nice to know that we have not been forgotten!”
The organization’s efforts have made a mark within the judicial system, but a looming question remains: Why are these nonviolent offenders still in prison? The Trump administration has beckoned an era of controversy and confusion which plagues all institutions and walks of life. The criminal justice system is non exempt from this. Unlike the Obama administration, Trump has remained stringent on his pardons. Till today, Trump has granted a total of 35 appeals for clemency; 25 pardons and 10 commutations. This political morality implicit in governmental shifts bear adverse effects towards the nation’s most endangered.
In the absence of administrative reprieve, the LPP has filed emergency clemency petitions for at-risk constituents. Prisoners like Michael Thompson, who has served over 25 years for a cannabis offense, and presents a serious risk due to an underlying health condition. Going further, the LPP has drafted a petition calling for the President, Attorney General, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons to implement emergency release measures and basic safety precautions protecting those incarcerated. It’s garnered almost 5,000 signatures.
The growing concerns from people like Edwin, Craig, Fate, Michael and Luke are just a fraction of the unrepresented prisoners seeking emancipation, or at least a bare minimum of safety.
These people and these stories matter.
It’s been 49 years since the War on Drugs, 26 years since Three Strikes Law and 24 years since cannabis was legalized. Regrettably, our governmental system still hasn’t effectively handled the residual effects that come with decriminalization. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of cleanliness within correctional facilities, and fatal cracks in healthcare response. The positive changes brought by LPP have made waves within prison reform, and continue to shed light on a silent community — but they can’t do it alone. Signing petitions, calling congressmen and holding people accountable is the first step. Sadly, for the disenfranchised, the pandemic has reformulated the question of clemency into that of life or death.
To learn more about Micheal Thompson and sign the petition go to https://www.freemichaelthompson.com/
Sign the petition to address the President, the Attorney General, and the Bureau of Prisons! https://www.change.org/p/donald-j-trump-protect-incarcerated-communities-from-covid-19