Behind the walls: a summary

Case numbers in the thousands

At least 48,764 cases of COVID-19 have been reported among prisoners. The data suggest that even these numbers may be underreported. Texas leads in the number of cases with 7,757, followed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons with 6,621 cases. Ohio, Michigan, California and Tennessee are right behind Texas and the BOP with 4,950, 3,991, 3,800, and 3,171 cases, respectively.

Im/migrants in detention are often given aluminum blankets, like the one in this graphic.

At least 585 prisoner deaths from the virus have been reported, with 91 from the federal BOP,  84 in Ohio, 69 in Texas, 68 in Michigan and the rest in other states. As far as prison staff are concerned, 10,342 cases and 42 deaths have been reported. (The Marshall Project, June 25) Across the country, 658 youth in juvenile facilities and 771 staff members have reportedly been infected with the virus. (The Sentencing Project, June 24)

Solitary confinement; parole doesn’t mean release

The dedication to punishment within the prison-industrial complex cannot be overstated. In its report “Solitary Confinement Is Never the Answer,” the Unlock the Box Campaign documents the impacts and risks associated with the 500 percent increase in the use of solitary confinement, which is the punitive way prisons have decided to respond to the pandemic. 

The report notes that “the number of people held in solitary confinement in the United States ballooned to an estimated 300,000 people in April, as compared to the estimated 60,000 people held in solitary confinement each day prior to the outbreak. Prolonged solitary confinement is an internationally recognized form of torture that we know is causing widespread harm, and it also colossally fails to contain the spread of the virus.” (Solitarywatch.org, June 15)

Many prisoners granted parole are nevertheless stuck in virus-ridden facilities due to COVID-19-related and other bureaucratic delays. Across several states, prisoners are kept locked up because they were not able to start or complete classes required for release, even though having to stay inside these concentration camps for the poor may be a death sentence. 

In Texas, nearly 15,000 people who have been granted parole remain locked up. Most are enrolled or are pending placement in required classes that have been suspended. Tennessee continues to cage 1,300 people who have been granted parole. (Austin Statesman, June 14)

Hunger strike in solidarity with George Floyd uprising 

June 4-9 saw a hunger strike by detainees at Mesa Verde Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center in Bakersfield, Calif. In a video shot by detainees and released through the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, detainees held up handwritten signs saying “BLM,” “Change the System” and “Para la discriminación” (Stop the discrimination). One detainee explained, “We stand with the Black Lives Movement and against the system that took the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and so many Black people.” 

Asif Qazi, a detainee inside the Mesa Verde facility, explains: “ICE always puts forth very inaccurate information … in order to discourage the cause of liberation. We’re doing this on our own … because of the recent deaths in ICE custody of Choung Woon Ahn and Carlos Mejia [not the famous Nicaraguan musician]. We are doing this because of ICE’s continuous lies in front of federal judges about how they have made it safe for us to be detained here during the coronavirus pandemic when it’s really not safe at all.” 

In the video, another detainee reads the following demands: “We stand united in protest and fight for change. We want to end racism and racist police. We want the police to stop murdering Black people. We want the police to stop arresting and accusing people of color. We want the police to stop caging and deporting immigrants. We want the Black and Brown people to be free. 

“We here at Mesa Verde want to be safe and free. We want the Attorney General to investigate the situation inside our detention center during the pandemic that led to the deaths of our friend Mr. Ahn and also Carlos Mejia. Power to the people.” (Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, June 8)

Lisa Knox, managing attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza, an Oakland-based organization that works with detained immigrants across California, says she’s always seen the systems of criminal justice and immigration as intertwined: “They’re both part of the targeted mass incarceration of Black and Brown people.” (Ourprism.org, June 12)

Release kids from detention

On June 27 a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered the release of migrant children who have been held longer than 20 days in any of the country’s three family detention centers, citing the coronavirus. The ruling applies to 124 children living in detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania. Citing terrible sanitary conditions and rapid spread of the virus in these facilities, the judge is the first to give a specific deadline (July 17) rather than call for “prompt” release. The children will be released to designated relatives in the United States upon parental designation. (New York Times, June 26)

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