Opinion: Black Lifers Matter — How COVID-19 Threatens Lives of People in Prisons

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A life sentence is not supposed to be a death sentence. We cannot leave anyone behind in our fight against this virus and we must act to bring home those who have done their time and shown their rehabilitation.

We have always felt this urgency – we live with it every day as Black people who are incarcerated or whose loved ones are incarcerated. But now, more than ever, we need others to see it too, because staying “safe” inside prison during a pandemic is impossible.

The Lifer Family Support Network was created because there was a need for Black families to connect and be able to share information about our efforts for loved ones serving lengthy sentences. We provide a platform for information sharing and support, not only for the person behind the wall, but also for the family members who have to cope with having a loved one who is incarcerated and who, themselves, are ostracized in every other space.

By definition, what we and our loved ones experience are as much racial justice issues as they are human rights issues. About 77% of people serving life-with-parole sentences in Maryland are Black, even though our state is about 30% Black. Maryland is tied with states such as Alabama and Louisiana in racial disparities.

For those with parole-eligible life sentences, Maryland’s parole system politicizes the process by putting the decision in the hands of the governor. That is why our group has worked with organizations such as the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative to pass legislation to take the politics out of parole and leave the final decision to the Maryland Parole Commission. Members of the Parole Commission are appointed by the governor, but they examine lifers’ demonstrated rehabilitation based on years of vetting and a rigorous review.

Taking the governor out of the process would give Marylanders serving parole-eligible life sentences a meaningful chance to prove their rehabilitation.

But let’s not forget that Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) could release these Marylanders at any time to help protect their lives and the lives of others inside the walls from COVID-19.

But he has chosen not to—he hasn’t even bothered to speed consideration and releases of elderly lifers who are extremely vulnerable.

To protect themselves during the pandemic people in prisons and jails have had to purchase more personal hygiene and cleaning supplies. That is difficult for people in prisons and jails who either cannot work or who make cents an hour in Maryland. In many cases their loved ones are already struggling to help pay for their needs.

Family members and friends help pay for expensive phone calls, books, medicine, soap, and cleaning supplies.
During this time of heightened financial uncertainty, that obligation cannot always be met. And if the person in a correctional institutional does not have a loved one to depend on, they go without.

Insufficient health care, overcrowding, and lack of enough soap, hand sanitizer, and proper air filtration systems in our prisons and jails exacerbate people’s risk of COVID-19 and show how Maryland’s leaders have a complete disregard for the lives of the people on the inside. This situation has gone on for years. The current pandemic only peeled back the layers of mistreatment behind prison walls.

Because we know the state is continuing to fail to meet the hygiene needs of Marylanders who are incarcerated during the pandemic, our members decided to run a fundraiser to ease some of the financial burden people in prisons and jails are facing and help provide necessary sanitary items that will keep them safe.

We hope to be able to give $50 to five people at each of Maryland’s 11 correctional institutions.

The legal justice system does everything it possibly can to strip people behind bars of their humanity, separate them from their families, and not provide the adequate care that human beings deserve.

Join us in disrupting that. Join us in showing the people inside that Black lifers matter.

— MARTINA HAZELTON and RANSOM WATKINS

Hazelton is a cofounder of the Lifer Family Support Network and Watkins is an exoneree and member of the Lifer Family Support Network.

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