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COVID-19 Is Turning Prisons Into “Kill-Boxes”

Activists are calling for large numbers of people to be released from jails, prisons and immigrant detention.

Faith leaders give a blessing and prayer on March 23, 2020, outside Cook County Jail in Chicago to pray for the health and release of the 5,500 people incarcerated there.

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“Our prisons are about to be utterly transformed by tragedy on a grand scale.” So concludes “COVID-19 And Indiana Prisons,” a 13-page blueprint to save the lives of thousands of people locked up in the cages of the Indiana Department of Corrections.

Written through a collective process involving more than 600 formerly incarcerated women, the report calls for the release of 5,662 people — 21 percent of the state prison population — and lays out a process to use funds from the state’s share of the federal stimulus package to house those people in the state’s underutilized motels and hotels. “Prisons are kill-boxes,” said Michelle Jones, who spent 20 years inside Indiana prisons and is one of the report’s key researchers. “Incarcerated people are going to suffer. They have no way to get away from it.”

The plan was submitted to Indiana state authorities on March 30. Two days later, the court notified the authors they were refusing to take action, as was the governor. “We hear over and over again from prison officials and sheriffs across the nation that they’ve got this under control. I don’t know if that’s from bravado or a failure to grasp the science and math of epidemics in enclosed spaces,” Kelsey Kauffman told Truthout in an email. Kauffman is a retired academic who directed higher education program inside Indiana Women’s Prison for six years and was a key player in developing the plan. “They are wrong and thousands will die, perhaps tens or even hundreds of thousands; few will care, least of all those who could have stopped it.”

These voices from Indiana are not alone. Ross MacDonald, chief medical officer of New York City’s Correctional Health Services observed, “This is not a generational public health crisis, rather it is a crisis of a magnitude no generation living today has ever seen…. I simply ask that in this time of crisis the focus remain on releasing as many vulnerable people as possible.” Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, likewise argued that prison officials should take action “to emergently decrease the population in its correctional facilities.”

Activists of all stripes, often led by formerly incarcerated people, have been trying to drive this point home to authorities at all levels of the carceral state. The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls joined with other members of the Justice Round Table to press the federal government to let incarcerated people go. In another initiative, more than 500 formerly incarcerated people and dozens of organizations signed onto a national letter calling for releases.

Despite such urgings from formerly incarcerated people, pillars of the legal profession, and public health experts — as well as the soaring number of positive test results and a rising COVID-19 death toll behind bars — prison authorities aren’t releasing significant numbers of people. For the most part, they seem bent on ignoring the obvious point made by former New York City Health Commissioner Mary Bassett and two other co-authors of a recent New York Times op-ed: “Today, there is no greater threat to public safety than the coronavirus.”

Attorney General William Barr’s recent response to COVID-19 in prisons has offered a little concrete relief — but with punitive strings attached. Barr promises to move some people in the federal prison system to house arrest but proposed that the decision about a person’s release be based on PATTERN, a risk assessment tool known for strong racial bias. Barr’s proposal also includes electronic monitoring and house arrest. Critics are especially concerned that if a federal probation officer must authorize all movement for people on house arrest, people could be penalized for going to the emergency room in a medical emergency — such as COVID-19 symptoms. Such penalties could, ironically, include a return ticket to the penitentiary.

While governments in countries like Iran and Ethiopia have used their powers to release tens of thousands of people from prisons, responses from U.S. authorities at all levels have shown little sense of urgency. The COVID-19-related releases that have happened are largely in jurisdictions with active campaigns against cash bond and pretrial detention. The largest jail release to date has come in Los Angeles County, which set 1,700 people free on March 23 — about 10 percent of the institution’s population.

“Those 1700 are from us,” activist Lex Steppling told Truthout. Steppling is the director of Campaigns and Policy for Dignity and Power Now, one of the key members of the JusticeLA Coalition that recently forced the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to reverse its decision to spend $1.7 billion on jail construction. JusticeLA spent years building its political power, winning over not only activist groups but also many county officials, including the Board of Supervisors.

The Chicago Community Bond Fund (CCBF), whose advocacy efforts played a large part in reducing the Cook County jail population by more than 40 percent in the last five years, worked with the Robert Kennedy Human Rights Fund and Believers Bailout to collect $120,000 to pay bond for 20 people in the jail.

They did this as an act of solidarity in the full recognition that their bond payments could not empty the jail. CCBF estimated that it would take $13 million to pay the bond for everyone held in county jail. Cook Country Sheriff Tom Dart, meanwhile, released 300 people, less than 6 percent of the jail population. Sharlyn Grace, CCBF’s executive director, said her organization was calling on “Cook County officials to do their jobs and protect the lives of people living in Cook County by releasing people from Cook County Jail.” In doing this work, CCBF has also placed emphasis on blocking the use of electronic monitoring as a condition of release. As I have written elsewhere, the pandemic is also becoming a moment in which the forces of the surveillance state are seizing opportunities to widen their nets and develop new technologies.

New York City’s notorious Rikers Island prison has received enormous media attention amid the pandemic. Nearly 200 people have already tested positive in Rikers. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who once declared his support for closing the facility, has now followed Dart’s ultra-cautious approach of letting out just 300 people — mostly those who were simply incarcerated for violating conditions of their parole. A community-based Emergency Release Fund raised $18,000 to pay the cash bond for another five people there.

Elsewhere in the state, a few other counties undertook releases, but in Broome County, the sheriff declared that, “jail is the safest place to be if you have the virus.” His intransigence sparked grassroots organizations Justice for the Southern Tier, Citizen Action and Truth Pharm to stage a car rally protest to demands releases and testing for those in the jail.

With a few exceptions, at the prison level, pleas for clemency, commutation, early release and just plain mercy have not been heeded. North Dakota took the most dramatic step with a March 22 release of 56 state prisoners. On March 27, Illinois released six mothers who were incarcerated with their young children in Decatur Prison. Two days later, the state’s Department of Corrections recorded its first COVID-19 death in the notorious Stateville prison near Chicago. By the middle of the week, nine other men were on ventilators in nearby Joliet Hospital. Gove. J.B. Pritzker’s response was a release of 300 minimum-security individuals.

While releases have been sparse, lockdowns and cessation of all programs have not. All 122 federal prisons and at least 30 state prisons have halted all visits. The feds have also placed a 30-day moratorium on lawyer consultations with incarcerated clients. Other states like Illinois have halted all movement between jails and prisons — a move that was promoted as putting fewer people in prison, but in reality resulted in overpacked county jails, making social distancing even more difficult.

The governors of two of the nation’s most populous states, Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York, aiming to steal media limelight from a president in over his head, left out any real consideration for people in prison in their elaborate plans for statewide shelter-in-place and movement restrictions. In California, Governor Newsom used his powers of commutation and clemency to free 21 people, but most of these were petitions that had long been under consideration. Many still needed to get final approval from the parole board before being released. After considerable public pressure, on March 31, Newsom unveiled a plan to let 3,500 people go. Their release will reportedly be spread over a period of 60 days — a long wait, considering the timeline of the pandemic.

In New York, not only has Governor Cuomo refrained from releasing people, but two activities at Rikers Island have drawn considerable criticism. The first was enlisting prison labor from Rikers to manufacture hand sanitizer. Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley had especially harsh words for this venture, tweeting:

Second, a story in The Intercept revealed that people incarcerated at Rikers Island were receiving $6 an hour to dig graves in a nearby cemetery. They weren’t told who was to be buried there.

Cuomo has also further damaged whatever minimal reputation he had as a reformer by using COVID-19 as a distraction to slip measures into the state budget for the coming fiscal year that would roll back the bail reform policies that went into effect on January 1. A cohort of defender groups argued that these measures would ultimately keep more people in Rikers and set more people up for dying.

Release Aging People in Prison (RAPP), a grassroots organization led by formerly incarcerated people, has been among the most vocal critics of Cuomo’s failure to act. RAPP has been pressing for years to win the release of elders and people with health-related vulnerabilities. RAPP issued a position paper, “Releasing New Yorkers from Prison Is the only way to Save Lives in the Wake of COVID-19,” which lays out a set of demands for release of all “vulnerable people” as well as those who have been granted parole or are less than a year away from release. The organization’s director, Jose Saldana, who spent 38 years in New York state prisons, told the audience during a Zoom video-conference call that, “The only solution we advocate for is decarceration…. It serves no purpose to have all these men and women in New York State prisons that are vulnerable to this disease and keep them in prison just to die…. That is racism and revenge.”

Carol Shapiro, a former member of the New York parole board, reiterated Saldana’s views. “This is not a political debate about punishment or redemption,” she told an online audience of several hundred. “As a Jewish person whose family lived through the Holocaust, my biggest fear is that we currently have death camps in our nation’s prisons and jails. The parole board needs to act now.”

While the calls for release have expanded as the threat of the pandemic has become more acute, a number of strategic questions have emerged in terms of who should be released and what should be provided for those released. In its detailed list of demands, RAPP highlighted the need for the state to provide housing and health care for anyone released. In addition, RAPP opposes “carve-outs” — legislation or policy that excludes people on the basis of their offense rather than evaluating them on health status and their individual accomplishments while incarcerated.

Another key element in response to the pandemic has been the need to release immigrants held in jails and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities. In the Northwest Detention Center in Washington State, 80 incarcerated migrants have maintained a hunger strike to demand their freedom, drawing support from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and dozens of supporters who circled the facility and sounded their horns in a show of solidarity.

Benjamin Ndugga-Kabuye, who is research and advocacy manager for Black Alliance for Just Immigration, reported similar actions inside ICE facilities in several other sites. He told Truthout that the nature of work done by immigrants, especially Black immigrants in cities like New York, left them vulnerable to being racially profiled and “being fed into these cages which will spread the pandemic.”

While the main focus of criminal legal reformers and abolitionists in this moment has been winning release, the pandemic is also a moment for activists to reflect on their overall direction. Activists like Andrea James of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, are pushing to reframe the narrative and connect the dots of the struggle against COVID-19 to broader issues.

“We have a pandemic of incarceration,” James told an online panel sponsored by Critical Resistance. She called on people to remain focused on “hyperlocal” work in their communities. “The virus has exposed all the things that don’t work, not just in the criminal legal system, but in systems that are set up to do nothing for the cash poor, the working poor, the poor, the formerly incarcerated and the incarcerated. It is time to create hyperlocal systems that we can begin to stitch together into communities that really create some transformation.”

James’s commentary highlights the fact that winning the release of people from prison and ensuring their survival will require more than Zoom meetings and Google-form sign-ons. In this uncharted terrain, those seeking any resolution that embodies even a modicum of social justice will have to make the path by walking it.

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