Justice for Rudolph Sutton

Letter signed by Innocence Network on April 30, 2020

The first incarcerated person to die of COVID-19 in the Pennsylvania Department of Correction’s custody was Rudolph Sutton, a man who served over 30 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. His death occurred just days after the local prosecutor was asked to review his case. Sutton’s death highlights the urgent need to address the public health crisis looming in our jails and prisons—without action, people will die. And those deaths will not be limited to just those who are incarcerated.

Public health experts agree that plans aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 and mitigating its total impact must include decarceration. Infectious diseases such as COVID-19 spread much more easily in a prison setting because they are closed environments where people cannot socially distance or engage in appropriate hygiene. Incarcerated people are not universally permitted hand-sanitizer nor are most provided adequate soap or PPE. As a result, the infection rate at Rikers Island Jail in New York is nearly 10%. The rate at the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio is nearly 80%. (New York City, with the second highest infection rate world-wide, has a known rate of 2%.)

While prisons and jails are isolating, they do not allow for sufficient isolation. Correctional officers, attorneys, medical personnel, and other staff enter and leave daily. This mixing of staff and prisoners increases the risk of exposure, not just to those who are incarcerated, but to staff and other workers who will spread the virus to others in their homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Of the more than 4,000 people currently detained at Rikers, 378 have tested positive for the virus without widespread testing, as have 964 staff and 158 medical workers. Ten corrections workers have died. What happens in prison affects us all.

Unless we act now, it will only get worse. A recent epidemiological model released by academic researchers and the ACLU found that any model that does not account for jails will undercount deaths by 98%. If a model predicts 100,000 deaths, actual deaths after accounting for jails would be 200,000. Every week we do not act could mean a difference of 18,000 lives.

As a Network of more than 60 organizations dedicated to freeing innocent people languishing behind bars for crimes they did not commit, we have seen the flaws of the criminal justice system first-hand. We know the devastation those errors wreak, not just on the wrongfully convicted, but on all defendants, their families, and the community. The failure of our leaders and our courts to respond to the looming crisis posed by the novel coronavirus in prisons and jails is no different and provides an even greater urgency to our collective work of making sure the wrongfully convicted are not sentenced to an even worse fate. It also demands that we seek assistance not only for the wrongfully convicted, but for incarcerated people more broadly.

As with all cases of the wrongfully convicted, a review of Mr. Sutton’s case brings to light the cracks in the criminal justice system, including flawed eyewitness identifications and incentivized testimony—cracks the Innocence Network is compelled to address. Mr. Sutton’s death is no different; we must act to address the harms mass incarceration will cause in this pandemic. Thus, we call upon policymakers, from governors to sheriffs to county commissioners to mayors, to do all they can to facilitate the release of as many people behind bars as we responsibly can. That includes those confined pretrial on nonviolent charges; those serving sentences for misdemeanors, municipal violations, or technical probation violations; those already granted parole or a release date within the next year; those in high risk categories, such as the elderly and individuals with underlying health conditions; and those with well-pled, colorable claims of innocence, pending the outcome of their claims in state justice systems.

As the last hope for many, we know the cost of letting errors go unchecked. None of us can afford to stand by as this public health crisis unfolds. A failure to reduce prison populations now, before it is too late, ignores a known risk, not just to those who are incarcerated, but to all of us.