Civil Liberties in a Pandemic
By Reggie Shuford, Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania
These are truly unusual times. The coronavirus pandemic has created a situation unlike any other in living memory.
The civil liberties implications of this outbreak are significant, and our team at the ACLU of Pennsylvania has been working tirelessly to protect our constitutional rights during this crisis. Our staff has been juggling new work environments at home and family obligations, while analyzing and responding to the urgent civil liberties needs of the day. I am always proud of the work they do but am especially proud in this moment.
People who are incarcerated are among the most vulnerable to a vast spread of coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease. While those of us on the outside are able to practice social distancing in our homes, people in our jails and prisons are, by definition, confined to an enclosed space. Those who are aging or who have underlying health complications are particularly vulnerable.
Over the last ten days, our team has leaned on corrections officials to implement science-based practices in their institutions to prevent the spread of coronavirus; presented the governor and other state officials a clear outline for expediting the release of people in state prisons who are most vulnerable to this virus and who have served their time; and pushed hard on the Philadelphia courts to stop issuing cash bail orders, which we learned they were still doing as recently as last week.
When the state Department of Corrections initially denied visits between attorneys and people in the institutions, it was ACLU-PA attorneys who convinced state officials to lift that ban within a day of its start.
Meanwhile, ACLU-PA staff worked day and night over the last week to determine how to protect people in immigration detention and from overzealous Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and, yesterday, we filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of 13 people who are held in immigration detention in three county jails and who are at high risk of contracting coronavirus and getting sick from the disease COVID-19. With co-counsel from the national ACLU and the law firm Dechert LLP, we argue that their continued detention is in violation of the Constitution.
Finally, with Pennsylvania’s primary election looming on April 28 and with a bill to delay the primary moving through the state legislature, we are encouraging every eligible voter in the commonwealth to apply for a mail-in ballot, a new voting opportunity created by last year’s election reform law. You can learn how to apply for your mail-in ballot by visiting votesPA.com, the Department of State’s official website for voter education.
You can find all of our publicly available responses to the pandemic at aclupa.org/COVID-19, and rest assured that so much more work is going on behind the scenes.
The team at ACLU-PA has met the moment that we are in with poise and fervor. Victory is never guaranteed. But we intend to persevere through this crisis with civil liberties intact.
In the meantime, may grace, compassion and humanity prevail.