Every day, Richard Lee Chalk prays that he’ll be let out of prison. He applied for clemency five months ago and now that there’s a coronavirus outbreak, going home is even more urgent.
The 61-year-old has a heart condition and Type 2 diabetes, which means catching COVID-19 could be deadly. But even apart from his health and age, Chalk is the perfect candidate for clemency.
He’s spent more than three decades behind bars for a felony murder charge, even though he didn’t pull the trigger. Since then, Chalk’s become a mentor, taken courses on law and conflict resolution, and worked as a cook in the prison kitchen, making big meals for family visitation days.
“I have done everything possible during this incarceration to change from the person who I was when I came to prison to the person who I am today,” Chalk wrote in a message from prison.
He’s hoping New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will release prisoners like him with health issues. But Chalk’s sister, Linda Luciano, worries about what could happen if he isn’t allowed to go home.
“Not my brother, or nobody else, deserves to die from this virus in prison,” she said.
Granting clemency to people like Chalk should be a no-brainer. Prisons are highly susceptible to an outbreak, and releasing people is the only surefire option to slow the coronavirus’ spread.
And yet governors around the U.S. are not using their power to release people in any meaningful way, despite the fact that more than 40 staff and detainees in state and federal facilities have already been killed by the coronavirus, according to data compiled by UCLA School of Law.
While multiple lawsuits have called for the release of sick and elderly incarcerated people, legal experts say it wouldn’t be enough to stave off the public health crisis in prisons.
Governors could use clemency to dramatically reduce prison populations — by letting out those who are imprisoned for minor violations, close to the end of their sentences, or who have pending applications that just need to be signed. But only nine have taken advantage of this power, albeit in minor ways.
Governors have the power to save lives. Instead, they’re showing political cowardice.