Bill Cosby might have a case for himself to be released from prison after at least one prison guard in his facility reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus. The consideration of his release brings about larger questions to the problems of incarceration and the difficult answers that have to be discussed.
According to Page Six, Cosby’s lawyers are preparing to file a motion to have him released from SCI Phoenix in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. He’s currently serving three to 10 years after being convicted of sexual assault in 2018. His attorney’s are seeking for him to be moved to house arrest. He would reside in his 9,000 square foot mansion in suburban Philadelphia, where he initially lived under house arrest with his wife Camille.
The coronavirus has caused people to reevaluate prison safety and health to the point where groups like the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have advocated for the release of prisoners. The group’s stimulus proposal called for “releasing incarcerated individuals in prisons, jails, and detention centers through clemency, commutations and compassionate release.”
The CBC has also called for the “immediate temporary release to home confinement of individuals who are a low-risk threat to the community, but to whom COVID-19 is a high-risk threat, which should automatically include (1) pregnant women, (2) adults over the age of 55, and (3) those with serious medical conditions, but could extend to those who are near to completing their sentence, low risk offenders, and those who have not begun their sentence, unless they pose a risk of serious injury to a reasonably identifiable person.”
At 82-years-old, Cosby is certainly vulnerable to the coronavirus, according to the Center for Disease Control. Considering the scope of the pandemic, it might be prudent to release him from prison.
“We believe it is only a matter of time before Mr. Cosby’s prison likely falls victim to the virus, such a confined space is the perfect place for a virus to spread rapidly,” said Cosby’s spokesman Andrew Wyatt. “It is hazardous to the prison staff and vulnerable inmates.”
Wyatt said he has been told that more than one prison officer at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19. Officials at SCI Phoenix, however, did not confirm or deny this to Page Six.
“Bill Cosby is no detriment or danger to the community,” Wyatt said. “He can’t go anywhere, he is elderly, he is blind. He can stay under house arrest with an ankle bracelet, as he did before, with his wife taking care of him. Let him do his time at home.” Cosby’s prison sentence came after at least 60 women accused him of sexually assaulting, raping or drugging them, according to The Wrap.
Wyatt said Cosby hasn’t been tested for the coronavirus, saying “He’s feeling fine other than being blind and his blood pressure spiking at different times,” adding he has his vitals checked each morning, currently does not have a fever nor is presenting symptoms of coronavirus. “We would not want a test to be wasted on him when he has no symptoms. But our concern is that he is really in a difficult situation,” said Wyatt.
Although the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections said it imposed restrictions on family visits last week, provided more soap for inmates and started to screen staff every day for COVID-19 symptoms, these actions aren’t necessarily enough to contain the virus. Even if a person doesn’t have any symptoms, celebrities like Idris Elba and Kevin Durant have shown us that this doesn’t necessarily mean someone is free from the risk of contracting from the coronavirus.
According to Page Six, 10 percent of Pennsylvania’s total prison population is geriatric. If this population contracts the virus, prisoners would have to be sent to already over-stressed medical facilities, which are often in rural areas.
“Without immediate action, jails and prisons will be the epicenter of the pandemic,” said Nyssa Taylor, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.
The coronavirus has forced a conversation about what it means to release incarcerated individuals, especially when criminal justice reform and abolition advocates have been pushing for certain policies for years. Topics — such as abolishing cash bail so that people don’t have to spend nights in jail before trial or finding alternatives to incarceration — are becoming much more pressing in the era of COVID-19.
Releasing prisoners also draws attention to larger issues that must be solved such as adequate healthcare, affordable housing and safety resources for the community once prisoners are released.
John Wetzel, Pennsylvania’s corrections secretary, explained that releasing inmates isn’t an easy task. “We have zero discretion to release inmates from state prison,” he said, adding that if the legislature approached him to develop criteria to furlough certain prisoners, he would do that. “But it’s not so simple. Release them to what? Do they have a place to go? Do they have health care? There’s a bunch of considerations.”
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