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Coronavirus, Prisoners, and Public Defenders

Updated: May 14, 2020

By Mythri Jayaraman, ILF International Fellows Advisory Council Member

As a public defender, nearly all of my clients are in prison. What happens to them in a global pandemic?

I have worked with detainees not only in the U.S., but also in Palestine, Tunisia, and Afghanistan through my fellowships with the ILF. Most people behind bars lack adequate health care, and many have preexisting conditions. When one inmate gets sick, the contagion spreads quickly. Yet in the midst of this COVID-19 crisis, few people are talking about how we will care for the millions of people who are incarcerated.

Most days, incarcerated people fall to the bottom of the priority list, and in times of crisis they are even more vulnerable. But the men, women, and children behind bars matter to their families and communities. And they matter to public defenders like me.

And what about us public defenders? I don’t want to get Covid-19. So far, I haven’t seen much in the way of adequate safety measures to convince me that prison populations are being protected. But I’ll be damned if I let my clients languish in jail without adequate representation. With over ten million people behind bars around the world--many of whom await trial and haven’t even been convicted--we need to act.

Keeping jails and prisons full at a moment like this is an unnecessary risk to public health and safety. Prisons are notoriously filthy and crowded. They serve as incubators for contagious diseases. In the U.S., federal prisoners are regularly being moved from one prison to another, across state lines. So not only does disease spread within a prison–it spreads among prisons nationwide.

The time to decarcerate is now. Public health services are already pushed to the breaking point, and prison health systems are severely under-equipped to handle a massive outbreak. We need justice systems around the world to join in fighting this pandemic.

Suspending the arrests and pretrial detention of people accused of low-level offenses would keep prisoners and their advocates safe, without compromising the security of our communities. Releasing elderly inmates and shifting people with pre-existing medical conditions to non-custodial measures should be a no-brainer. Let’s also press for expedited parole hearings.

Further, while there has been a quick move to end visitations at federal prisons in response to COVID-19, it would be more useful to stop arresting people whose only crime was entering the U.S. without proper documentation. As we look for ways to reduce prison populations during this crisis, we should bring an end to the unnecessary detention of migrants here and around the world.

Meanwhile, let’s get creative. Let’s talk about setting up technology for secure private video communications with our clients, or video court hearings so people who can get released with a time served sentence can have their hearings remotely and get home to their loved ones.

Our clients deserve to be part of the global conversation. They’re human beings, and that should be more than enough to justify their protection. That’s why public defenders will continue to fight for them, and for justice systems that will act swiftly to keep us all safe in times of crisis.

Mythri Jayaraman is a federal public defender in Philadelphia and member of the ILF International Fellows Advisory Council. In addition to practicing law in Pennsylvania, she has served as an ILF fellow in Afghanistan, Palestine, and Tunisia.


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