Release Some Incarcerated People to Protect Community Health from COVID-19

As advocates for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, we call for the release of certain groups of people incarcerated in our states to reduce the rampant spread of COVID-19 and to protect survivors of domestic and sexual violence, including those who are in prison. We join our sister Northwest coalitions—the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence and the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence—in calling for public health-informed releases to safeguard community health.

We work every day for a future where everyone can be free from violence and abuse. We believe this future is possible if communities prioritize strategies that improve well-being for all people and address the underlying conditions that allow violence to occur, rather than continuing to over-rely on criminal legal solutions as the primary strategy for ending domestic and sexual violence.

We call for the immediate release of asylum-seeking and immigrant detainees held in the NW Detention Center, a for-profit, corporate-owned prison. The majority of these people have fled severe violence and abuse.

The vast majority of incarcerated women and transgender people have been victims of severe domestic violence, sexual violence, and trafficking, often endured over a lifetime. Many incarcerated men also have painful histories of abuse and trauma. People of color and people in poverty are routinely incarcerated for crimes that others are not. All of our communities—especially those harmed by economic hardship and institutionalized racism—deserve accountability, healing, and restoration. As victim advocates, we know that prisons aren’t separate from society – real people work there, live there, and visit there. The prison structure is ripe for the fast spread of a pandemic.

Due to the dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, WSCADV supports the release, under certain conditions, of some people held in state prisons:

  • Pregnant people, those who have given birth in the past year, and those raising children in prison nurseries;
  • Non-violent offenders in the older age and medical vulnerability categories; and
  • Women and transgender survivors of violence convicted of violent crimes but whose rehabilitation indicates a safe release.

We call for immediate steps to create conditions that will support safety and re-entry:

  • Victim notification in the case of release of prisoners who committed domestic violence or sex crimes. Survivors need and deserve this information for safety planning and making life decisions for themselves and their children.
  • Screening of individuals set to be released, even for non-violent offense, to identify if domestic violence or sexual assault was a part of the crime, as these cases are often plead down to lesser charges. This cannot be short-changed in the interest of time. The best screening strategy is asking the victim if and how the offender can be safely released.
  • A re-entry plan and places for re-entering individuals to go, with an overall state commitment to invest in re-entry, now and beyond the COVID-19 crisis. We support the efforts of the Statewide Re-entry Council to plan and secure resources in preparation for the prospect of increased releases.
  • Robust survivor advocacy and safety planning – both for survivors in the community worried about the release of a person who has caused them harm, and incarcerated survivors being released into unsafe circumstances without adequate resources.

Criminal interventions remain an important option for intervening to stop violence, but they cannot be the only option for ending abuse. The time is now to expand the range of options available for people to find safety and justice, and to prevent future violence.

Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Oregon Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence