Vera is working to center human dignity and minimize the harms of criminal legal and immigration system involvement that are inflicted on millions in the United States—especially on Black people and communities of color. Our work took on a heightened urgency this year with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which people incarcerated in jails, prisons, and detention centers were left largely unprotected.

Saving lives in the COVID-19 pandemic

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Protecting a population at risk

In early 2020, as America became the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vera mobilized to help protect people in jails, prisons, and detention centers facing extreme risk of infection with no ability to protect themselves. We provided government leaders and advocates with specific recommendations to prevent further transmission of the virus by dramatically slowing arrests, stopping immigration raids, ending unnecessary prosecutions, and reducing jail and prison populations. We developed data tools tracking jail populations to monitor the impact of the criminal legal system’s response and provide accountability. And we shared our extensive guidance and resources with thousands of local, state, and federal officials through blog posts, special reports, webinars, and videos.

Our response work has played a critical role in freeing people:

  • In New Orleans and Los Angeles, our staff coordinated with advocates and system stakeholders to get people out of jail, contributing to a decline of almost 20 percent in the jail population in both places during the height of the outbreak.
  • In Houston, we drafted—and judges approved—a new standing bail order mandating release for many offenses. In the weeks immediately following its implementation, the jail population declined by 17 percent.
  • In Kentucky, which entered the COVID-19 pandemic with the second highest rate of jail admissions in the nation, Vera called for expanding the Kentucky Supreme Court’s mandatory release bail policy in the wake of COVID-19. This policy change reduced the statewide jail population by more than 25 percent during the summer of 2020.
  • In New York, an early epicenter of the pandemic, Vera released guidance briefs on the urgent need to release people from the state’s prisons and Rikers Island jail. We developed an online data tool—Jail Viz 2.0—that allows users to see in real time who is incarcerated in New York City's jails and why. Advocates, city officials, and even the City’s Board of Correction have told us that they used the tool to track progress on reducing the number of people at Rikers Island. Vera is currently developing a similar tool to track the daily state prison population.

Demanding release of immigrants in detention

Our COVID-19 work focused as well on America’s massive immigrant detention system, which in 2019 held as many as half a million people in prison-like conditions that create a high risk for rapid spread of this dangerous virus.

As the pandemic spread in the early months of 2020, Vera joined with local leaders in calling on immigration officials to immediately release everyone from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, prioritizing those with vulnerabilities—including people who are 55 years and older, are pregnant, have serious chronic medical conditions, or are housed in units that restrict their access to medical care. Our guidance also called for specific prevention measures to contain the spread of the virus.

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In response to a lack of transparency about COVID-19 in federal immigration detention facilities, Vera used available ICE data to model how ICE operations may be contributing to COVID-19’s spread among people in immigration detention. As of September 1, ICE had reported 5,379 cases of COVID-19 in 93 of its more than 200 detention facilities, meaning at least 19 percent of people in detention tested for the virus had positive results. Our model estimated that the actual number of COVID-19 cases in detention was likely 15 times higher than the official numbers ICE reported earlier in May.

Our efforts reflect our ongoing commitment to ending the criminalization of and harms to communities of color and immigrant communities—whether caused by COVID-19, punitive arrest and enforcement, or mass incarceration—and our nation’s legacy of slavery and systemic racism, which underlie these harms. Vera continues to press for people’s freedom during the COVID-19 crisis, while working with partners to improve social distancing and other conditions behind bars so that living in jails, prisons, and detention centers is not a death sentence.

Unlocking potential: Ending the Pell Grant ban for incarcerated students

Transformed by access to college in prison

by Allen Burnett

Twenty-eight years ago, I was sentenced to life without parole and began serving time at California State Prison, Los Angeles County in Lancaster, California. Around that same time, after the 1994 Crime Bill was enacted—ending Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students—I saw cuts to all kinds of programs, including educational ones. Going to school and getting a college degree seemed out of the question, especially since I still carried emotional baggage related to having a learning disability growing up and constantly being told I was “slow.”

I found a group of men who, despite also being sentenced to life without parole, were taking classes with Coastline Community College. Eventually, up to 700 people were enrolled in college courses at Lancaster, and there have been more than 200 graduates from Coastline. When a California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State LA) professor visited and saw what these men were accomplishing pretty much on their own, he brought in other professors from different schools. I began my college journey in late 2015, and I plan to graduate from Cal State LA by 2021 with a degree in communication studies and a minor in English.

Last year, the governor of California decided to commute my sentence and let me return home, I think in large part because he was impressed with my educational aspirations and all the achievements I’d made while incarcerated.

I’m currently working as a consultant for an organization called Parole Justice Works, where I get to help incarcerated people prepare for the transition to outside life and parole. Many people with incarceration histories struggle to join or rejoin the labor market, and I know all of this has been made feasible for me because I took the opportunities offered while behind bars to work toward something positive and continue my education.

I believe that everyone, no matter their current sentence, should have the same opportunities I did to educate themselves and learn more about the world beyond the few blocks they grew up on. Learning different styles of thinking and communication philosophies has completely changed my outlook on life, and I know it will for others too.

For nearly a decade, Vera’s work to expand access to quality postsecondary education in prison has been a cornerstone of our commitment to affirming human dignity behind bars. Education results in fewer people returning to prison, more people employed, and more resources to support families. But access to college-level education behind bars is still too rare, and classes are too expensive for most incarcerated students, especially since Congress banned federal Pell Grants for people in prison in 1994.

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Now, for the first time in decades, there is growing bipartisan support and political will for expanding access to college for people in prison. Building on this unique opportunity, Vera, in partnership with many other organizations, is leading a national campaign to reverse the federal ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students—an action that would empower tens of thousands of incarcerated students to receive quality postsecondary educations. In July, thanks in part to Vera’s advocacy, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to lift the Pell ban. This historic milestone came just weeks after Vera hosted its third annual (and first virtual) “Hill Day” to educate members of Congress about college-in-prison programs in their states. We are now working with our advocacy partners to bring repeal of the Pell ban across the finish line.

Vera is also working to expand access to college in prison by providing technical assistance to colleges and corrections departments participating in the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites initiative—a limited, temporary restoration of Pell Grants for incarcerated students. This April, the initiative doubled in size, and Vera now provides support to 130 colleges across 42 states and the District of Columbia. This year, as COVID-19 restrictions threatened these programs, Vera facilitated a series of webinars for participating sites and worked with the U.S. Department of Education, corrections officials, and colleges to implement technology-supported distance learning. All but eight colleges in three states were able to complete their academic terms and award their students credit.

Securing universal representation for immigrants facing deportation

Angela’s story

My granddaughter suffered very much when I was detained. We lived in the same house, and she was used to seeing me every morning. I was cleaning an office building when ICE arrived. I was not the person they were looking for, but they detained me anyway. For a whole week, no one told my family where I was, so they became sick with worry. My granddaughter hardly ate. She got sick and had a fever. You think that children are not affected, but they are.

I was in detention for a month and four days. I was so desperate there. We all were. There was a woman who cried so much, the officers took her away. My daughter was frantic when I did not have a lawyer. We thought that there was no way out for me except deportation.

Angela is just one of many people lost in a system that sets immigrants up to fail. Denied the right to government-funded counsel, people like Angela are forced to go it alone against trained government attorneys and the full force of the federal arrest-to-deportation machine. The consequences are all too often severe—including permanent separation from their loved ones, their livelihoods, and their communities.

In our work, we have seen the dramatic difference that legal representation makes. Our research shows that immigrants who have legal counsel are more than 10 times more likely to establish a right to remain in the United States than those who do not. As mass arrests and attacks on immigrant communities continue, deportation defense is urgently needed.

A core strategy in Vera’s fight against this fundamental injustice is the SAFE (Safety & Fairness for Everyone) Initiative—a unique collaboration among governments, immigration legal service providers, and advocates working together to build a national movement for universal representation. We are committed to ensuring that every person facing deportation receives legal representation regardless of income, race, national origin, or history with the criminal legal system.

With a network of publicly funded legal defense programs in 21 jurisdictions across 11 states, SAFE is a cornerstone of Vera’s efforts to disrupt the criminalization, arrest, and detention of immigrants and their families. Universal representation means that immigrants who can’t afford a lawyer get one, as well as a fair chance to fight for their rights in immigration court—especially in this time of crisis.

Through SAFE, Angela was able to secure a lawyer and did not have to face the judge alone. Her lawyers negotiated a $2,500 bond, and she has rejoined her family. “To go to court with no one’s support is to get deported,” Angela says. “I am now accustomed to fear, but I ask that God will not let other families go through what we have been through. These things, you don’t want to happen to anybody.”

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Over the next three years, Vera will work urgently with our local partners to expand SAFE to 30 jurisdictions and launch campaigns for statewide immigrant defense programs, such as those already underway in Colorado and New York. We are also ramping up our use of polling, media, and social media to lift up the work of our partners and generate broad public support for universal representation. Our goal is to lay the foundational blocks that would establish and guarantee federally funded, zealous universal representation for all people facing deportation.