Mothers Are Pushing to Free Their Children From Prison During COVID

“Mom and Pop’s,

I could no longer breathe too good. So I alerted the med tech. I was tested for COVID-19 and it came back positive. Right now, I’m in the south house in a cell by myself. I love you guys very much.”

This is an email that no parent should ever have to read. Matthew Echevarria — a survivor of Chicago police torture who was convicted of a crime he did not commit — sent this email to his parents Denise and Brian Bronis from Menard Correctional Center where he is currently incarcerated.

Matthew is one of 30,888 people incarcerated in an Illinois prison in perpetual fear of dying in a cage from COVID-19. “South House,” as Matthew refers to it, is a portion of Menard that had deteriorated so much that it was closed down. According to Matthew’s mother, Denise Joyce-Bronis, South House is a “decrepit” mice-infested area that is now being used as a quarantine space for inmates that test positive for COVID-19. Like many other sick inmates, Matthew’s health got to a near fatal point before he alerted the medical technician out of fear of being put in South House.

People incarcerated in Illinois prisons are disincentivized to report being sick due to a combination of quarantine conditions, fear of retaliation and apathy on the part of prison staff. For example, Matthew experienced respiratory distress during a video visit, visibly gasping for air and coughing. Because all video visits are surveilled, prison staff members were aware of his condition and did nothing.

“Mom, they’re not going to take me to the hospital unless it’s really, really bad. I got to be flopping on the floor.”

Denise, scared for her son’s life, knew he wouldn’t get the medical attention he needed without a push. She contacted Matthew’s legal team, who then contacted the warden to intervene. Yet the staff interrogated Matthew for this intervention, threatening to put him in segregation for “dangerous communication,” which is the prison’s language for prisoners telling the truth. The prison staff effectively silenced him for being sick. Ironically, the staff is primarily responsible for bringing the virus into the prison facility. Each day, thousands of staff members come and go from prison facilities, potentially carrying COVID-19 asymptomatically.

Matthew is not an anomaly or outlier. His case is a microcosm of what’s going on in Illinois prisons, and in human cages around the country. Incarcerated people are disproportionately medically vulnerable relative to the rest of the U.S. population, essentially making COVID-19 a death sentence for many behind bars.

According to a class action complaint on behalf of 10 individual plaintiffs incarcerated in Illinois prisons, the Illinois Department of Corrections has continued to fall short of — or completely ignore — CDC guidelines to mitigate the spread of the virus, from social distancing to rigorous hygiene, including regular and thorough handwashing with soap and water, the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and frequent cleaning of all surfaces. Most of the recommended measures for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 are not available for incarcerated people. It’s virtually impossible to socially distance. People share toilets, sinks and showers. Surfaces are not cleaned regularly or thoroughly, and incarcerated people are not given adequate cleaning supplies or personal protective equipment. Where is the mass outrage about this public health crisis?

Denise has been fighting for her son and other survivors of police torture that remain incarcerated through a collective called Mamas Activating Movements for Abolition and Solidarity (MAMAS). MAMAS members, along with coalitions like End Illinois Prison Lockdown Coalition and the Campaign to Free Incarcerated Survivors of Police Torture have been calling and emailing Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to no avail, but they keep doing it because as COVID cases are spiking again, people behind bars continue to be rendered invisible. These groups are demanding actions like more yard time, access to libraries, visitations and phone calls, and ultimately, for the Department of Corrections to follow state safety guidelines for COVID-19.

MAMAS members want their sons to come home. In addition to their desire to be reunited with their loved ones, they share a fundamental belief that prisons shouldn’t exist in the first place. And they point to the recommendations of health experts who have deemed releasing prisoners as a necessary risk mitigation strategy, prioritizing the most medically vulnerable individuals.

A number of states, such as California and New York, have taken steps to protect people in prisons from COVID-19 by reducing populations — though they have not reduced them by nearly enough. Other states, like Oklahoma and Wisconsin have taken even more moderate, and thus even less effective, steps to reduce the prison population by halting new admissions from county jails into state prison facilities. At the beginning of the pandemic, Illinois made a cursory gesture toward decarceration, transferring home or releasing around 1,300 people from prisons by May. The governor can do much more. Many who qualify for release and are medically vulnerable remain in custody. Releasing incarcerated people will not only slow the spread of the virus, but also lessen the public crisis of the prison itself.

Prisons don’t keep us safe to begin with; they separate families and cause more violence than they prevent. COVID-19 adds more sickness and death to an already unjust system. Public officials that have the power to take action won’t be responsive unless we raise our collective voices of righteous rage to acknowledge that actual human beings are dying in cages due to a COVID-19 death sentence imposed by state inaction. We must demand to free them all.