The First COVID-19 Death of a Father in Federal Prison Highlights the Ongoing Struggle for Incarcerated Parents and Their Families

Image: NBC News Headline.

On April 5th, 2020, NBC news reported on the first death of an individual housed in federal prison— Patrick Jones, a father serving time for a non-violent drug charge. The article reports that Patrick had not seen his youngest son, now 16, since the boy was a toddler. This is common as Bureau of Justice Statistics research shows that over half of parents in prison never get visits from their children while incarcerated. This is often due to common barriers that create family separation including distance and cost. Most parents are placed in federal prisons across numerous state lines and costs associated with in-person, phone, and video visitation make it nearly impossible to stay in touch.

Patrick wrote to U.S. District Judge, Justice Alan Albright, on October 15th asking for his release via the First Step Act (an act allowing individuals charged with non-violent drug charges to be released early on electronic home monitoring). In his letter, Patrick relayed how his sentence has impacted his child:

I feel that my conviction and sentence was also a punishment that my child has had to endure also and there are no words for how remorseful I am…Years of 'I am sorry' don't seem to justify the absence of a father or the chance of having purpose in life by raising my child.       

The judge denied his request for relief under the First Step Act on February 26th; he died twenty-two days later of the coronavirus, marking the first life lost due to COVID-19 in a federal prison nationwide. According to the article, the low-security prison in Oakdale Louisiana is now dealing with the deadliest outbreak of any of the 122 federal facilities and is an example of the urgency of which we must respond to support those who are in prison during this national emergency. Children of incarcerated parents, dealing with daily anxiety and fear, have taken the lead around the nation to demand action in support of their parents. Groups led by children of incarcerated parents like We Got Us Now are leading this effort.

Overall, the tragedy Patrick’s family is experiencing highlights many of the issues that existed pre-COVID-19 and are now exacerbated. Our criminal justice and prison systems lack adequate hygiene and health care and reports show that our sentencing changes have fallen short of real solutions for many people in prison and have even failed to provide support for victims who prefer rehabilitation over punishment. Specifically, sentencing changes have done little to address racial bias in our systems. The structural and systemic barriers that have led to racial profiling, racial discrimination in how prosecutors choose whether to charge an individual with a crime, and racially discriminatory sentencing outcomes are all embedded in how our alternatives are also applied. With existing judicial discretion, racial bias impacting Black and Latinx men shows that they are sentenced more harshly than their white counterparts. The NBC article relays the reasons for Patrick’s denial which included government prosecutors arguing against his release by labeling him as a “career offender,” even though most of his charges are from when he was only 17 years-old and show a childhood with lack of opportunity and support rather than an inability to change. Unchecked for bias, prosecutors and judges can now make decisions using the same stereotyping that lead to the surveillance, over-policing, and harmful mandatory sentencing laws that placed individuals like Patrick behind bars in the first place. Patrick’s life and death highlights many of the inherent problems of our criminal justice system and the harm of long-term sentences on our families and communities. Sentences that could have been better addressed through alternative sentencing and community accountability. Alternative sentences that could not only keep our communities safer, but could have kept a father alive and with his son.

Riley Hewko, Esq.

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