Prisons are concentration camps for the poor — disproportionately Black, Brown, Indigenous, migrant, disabled and, increasingly, elderly. Prisons are especially dangerous places now because of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. But just like other workers, prisoners and their supporters can fight like hell — and push back against incarceration policies that endanger their health and lives.
Former prisoners, their families and friends, and currently incarcerated people are leading the movement to empty local jails, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers, youth detention centers, and state and federal prisons before COVID-19 hits full force. Health and “criminal justice” experts agree the virus will rapidly increase deaths in U.S. prisons. The U.S. has the largest concentration of prisoners in the world.
Incarcerated people are at high risk for infection and have seriously limited access to health care and hygiene within facilities. Overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of confinement, coupled with inadequate, neglectful and often punitive responses to medical needs, mean that COVID-19 poses a deadly peril. The risks are further exacerbated because criminalized and incarcerated populations have disproportionately higher rates of serious and chronic illnesses, leaving them more vulnerable to viruses.
Mass pressure to decarcerate now
Groups from California to Massachusetts are demanding the release of as many prisoners as possible before the onset of the virus decimates U.S. prison populations.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania joined with the Amistad Law Center and the Abolitionist Law Center to send a widely publicized letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf demanding the release of 1,900 prisoners who are elderly, have health issues or are pregnant, and the parole or pardon of thousands more of the state’s 47,000 prisoners (https://tinyurl.com/r94wzkg). Similar movements are growing in other states.
Beyond Prisons developed a “Short Guide for How to Support Prisoners During the COVID-19 Crisis” (https://tinyurl.com/sdjhdlf) in collaboration with a number of organizers across the country. Organizer Kim Wilson told Workers World, “First and foremost, we are demanding the immediate release of all detained people, especially all pre-trial detainees, the elderly, pregnant, immuno-compromised prisoners, as well as all mothers and infants in prison nurseries, and mothers who are postpartum. Additionally, we demand the release of detained people who have less than 18 months on their sentences. We echo the demand by Critical Resistance to commute the sentences of people serving life without parole.
“Additionally, we have a list of 22 demands that address the conditions inside of prisons given the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve offered suggestions for what people outside can do right now to support prisoners and we encourage people to work locally to develop mutual aid groups and to share those efforts with us so that we can build a comprehensive resource. As abolitionists we work to dismantle the prison-industrial complex and to address the conditions of all incarcerated people.”
As of March 20, press reports have revealed that prison guards have been sent home or hospitalized for COVID-19 in California, Washington state, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Bryant Arroyo, imprisoned in the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Frackville, told WW: “The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is not reporting these as COVID-19 positive. They are saying the guards are taking vacations.”
The DOC and the Pennsylvania Department of Health are refusing to release testing information, citing an old state health law that allows officials to keep certain information secret during a disease outbreak.
With little confidence in prison administrators from any states to release actual infection rates to the public, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee/Fight Toxic Prisons is asking prisoners to call 410-449-7140 during business hours to report any instances of incarcerated people becoming ill with the coronavirus.
Pressure is also mounting on judges, police chiefs, mayors and prosecutors to stop adding to prison populations, especially from oppressed communities, for nonviolent and minor crimes and misdemeanors. Activists are also calling for those arrested to be released without cash bail. Cash bail policies allow those with money to pay their way out of detention while poorer defendants remain incarcerated.
People may not be able to stage mass marches on the streets but petitions (Free our loved ones now: https://tinyurl.com/qwb8n9h), press releases, social media campaigns and other virtual protests are making their voices heard loud and clear:
Don’t let COVID-19 turn a prison sentence into a death sentence! Let our incarcerated comrades go home now!