The Department of Corrections has announced the death of Rudolph Sutton, a 67-year-old man serving a life sentence at the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix. He died at the Einstein Medical Center on April 8 due to complications of COVID-19. When asked about the cause of death last week, the DOC had allegedly denied the cause of death, as reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
This news comes on the heels of the governors’ announcement to authorize the prisoner’s early releases. However, in a prison system with over 45,000 prisoners and tens of thousands more people linked to the system by family members employed there, less than 1,800 prisoners eligible for temporary release is not sufficient to meaningfully slow the spread of Covid-19.
We grieve Rudolph’s death and unnecessary loss of human life. We fear his death will not be the last. While Governor Wolf’s reprieve order of last week recognized that priority should be given to those who are medically vulnerable to severe illness and death from COVID-19, it excluded the vast majority of the medically vulnerable by excluding people serving death-by-incarceration, who are among the oldest in the prison system. However, those who are older than 50 pose little to no risk of re-offending.
While we acknowledge this as a first step by the Governor and the PADOC, we implore them too to take much stronger measures, reduce the self-imposed obstacles to eligibility, and increase the eligibility pool by many thousand more prisoners. We push to let public safety and public health – and not the failed politics of mass incarceration – determine the response to this pandemic in the prisons, or else we will see more and more elders sacrificed in the name of political expediency.
This lifer’s death from COVID-19 related illness at SCI-Phoenix is a painful reminder that we must act fast to release people who fall into the vulnerable categories, especially our elderly, before there is an even deadlier toll. For us, one death is one death too many. We grieve for Rudolph Sutton.