Protesters swarm City Hall in cars, demanding mass release of low-risk inmates

Cherri Gregg
March 30, 2020 - 7:09 pm
Protesters in cars demand low-risk inmates released

Cherri Gregg/KYW Newsradio

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Protesters swarmed City Hall on Monday — in their cars, per social-distancing rules — to demand the release of low-level offenders from Philadelphia and state prisons. 

The rally comes days after health officials announced the first positive cases of COVID-19 in both the Philadelphia Department of Prisons and the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.

Dozens of vehicles drove around City Hall, honking their horns as a sign of protest. The cars bore signs and banners taped to windows, hoods and doors that read: “Inaction is Murder,” “Release Them All” and “Free Our People Now.”

“Folks in prison, they are the most vulnerable at this point in time, and we need to protect them like we protect everyone else,” said Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari of West Philadelphia synagogue Kol Tzedek. 

Speaking on behalf of a coalition of groups, like Black Lives Matter, Decarcerate PA, and Frontline Dads, Fornari is calling for lawmakers and other officials to free low-risk juveniles and medically vulnerable inmates, as well as those held pretrial on cash bail.

“It’s extremely dangerous for everyone inside that jail,” they added. “They are in close quarters. They are not able to access medical care. They are not properly able to quarantine.”

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On Friday, the Philadelphia Department of Prisons identified two positive COVID-19 cases. On Sunday, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections announced its first case of the coronavirus. By Monday, the corrections secretary implemented a system-wide quarantine to stop the spread of the disease. 

Also on Monday, the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed an emergency petition with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court hoping to invoke the high court’s King’s Bench powers. The petition asks for the release of medically vulnerable inmates held on cash bail or probation detainers.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner joined in the call for lowering county jail populations during the pandemic, adding that “no one with any amount of public power should get to sit on the sidelines during this crisis.”

All of this comes just days after the ACLU of Pennsylvania sued for the release of 13 medically vulnerable detainees housed in Pennsylvania Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities. On Friday, a federal court freed two of the detainees.

On Monday, the Defender Association of Philadelphia sent a letter recommending that the District Attorney’s Office, the First Judicial District and the Defender Association should agree on the release of certain categories of incarcerated individuals in order to swiftly and safely reduce the county's prison population. 

“The process that we have now is not conducive to significant reductions in the prison system,” said Keir Bradford-Grey, chief of the Defender Association. “But without an agreement on who we’re prioritizing for release, we’re going to continue this dangerously slow, case-by-case process of evaluating who should or should not be released. We simply don’t have the time for that.”

In recent days, prison reform advocates have criticized the slow-paced process that the courts and other offices are using to determine which, if any, inmates should be released amid the crisis.

In New York prisons, infection rates for COVID-19 were seven times the general public.