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Prison COVID Policies Fell Short. Incarcerated Activists Fight for Their Lives.

Incarcerated organizers are still in fight mode against lethal COVID policies.

Part of the Series

On October 11, prison organizer Dawn Brooks’s phone began ringing off the hook. Within three days, she received 50 calls.

Colitha Bush, a Texas mother who had been released from federal prison under COVID measures in mid-September, was one of the callers. She had spent 14 days at a halfway house before being released to home confinement at her sister’s house. On October 12, the halfway house administrator called and said her release date had been pushed back another year. They ordered her to report to the halfway house the following day and warned that she would most likely be sent back to prison.

“I immediately sat down and started crying,” Bush told Truthout. She called the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) regional office, leaving several voicemails. When the BOP, the supreme authority over all federal prisons, didn’t respond, she called her congressperson. Finally, she phoned her friend Jackie, whom she knew from prison. Through her tears, she told Jackie about the call — and how devastating another year in prison would be. “Hold off. This is not your story,” Jackie told her. Jackie called several advocates, including Dawn Brooks.

Brooks had been fighting against the BOP’s treatment of those placed on home confinement since her own release in June 2020. She wasn’t going to allow prison officials to claw back Bush’s hard-earned freedom without a fight. She and other advocates who had done time together in the “Feds” (as they called the federal prison system) sprang into action, bombarding the BOP with emails and phone calls.

Within five days the bureau rescinded their ill-founded effort to return people like Colitha Bush to prison and lengthen their time there.

Frenzied phone calls and strategizing on the fly were nothing new for these advocates. This was yet another episode of the pandemic as played out inside U.S. prisons. For Brooks, it all started with a life-and-death battle between the BOP and a highly organized force of impacted people, led by women incarcerated in the federal prison at Danbury, Connecticut. Along the way, a host of progressive lawyers and nonprofit activists had become a support team for Brooks and her fellow incarcerated organizers.

Bureaucratic Incompetence Sparks Organizing

The actions of Brooks and company were all a reaction to the March 26, 2020, memorandum from then-Attorney General William Barr which authorized the BOP to release people to home confinement to stem the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.

On April 3 of that year, after five COVID deaths in the federal prison in Oakdale, Louisiana, Barr turned up the heat, ordering a review of “all inmates who have COVID-19 risk factors.” Two days later, he declared an emergency in the federal system, giving prison officials the power to grant early release beyond the 10 percent remaining sentence or six months (whichever is less) specified in the First Step Act of 2019.

This prompted action by the typically lethargic bureaucracy. By August, federal authorities claimed they had released over 30,000 people, the largest mass release in U.S. prison history. The vast majority were placed on house arrest with an electronic monitor.

Despite boastful media releases from the BOP, the process was beset by bureaucratic confusion, inconsistent policy application and the inadequacies of a BOP risk assessment tool known as PATTERN. On top of that was the ever-present threat that once the government declared the pandemic over, people would be returned to prison.

All of these sparked a movement by a cohort of activists who understood that they needed to fight to save their own lives.

Frustrated by the callous ineptitude of the BOP, in May, Brooks and three other people incarcerated at Danbury filed suit against the Bureau of Prisons, demanding adherence to the Barr memorandum. Plus, she and Wendy Kraus-Heitmann, also incarcerated at Danbury (though not a plaintiff in the lawsuit), started a nonprofit organization called the Danbury 100, which then drove a national campaign for freedom.

Although their efforts attracted little media attention, their coordinated resistance for the next year and a half developed into a vibrant and effective form of self-organization that extended beyond prison walls.

The Danbury 100 and their allies in other prisons wrote successful petitions for clemency, argued for the release of eligible people whom the BOP had refused to set free, created two Facebook groups to share crucial information, and pushed back when the BOP tried to re-imprison people for petty violations of the rules of electronic monitoring and home confinement. “Our passion came from getting [the] medically vulnerable out,” Kraus-Heitmann told Truthout.

Brooks, who has lupus, and other women began collecting data on individual cases and chronicling negligence by staff. They phoned their lawyers every day with new information.

“If a guard came to work and wasn’t wearing a mask, I wrote that down,” Brooks told Truthout. “If they were abusive in any way, that got put into a daily record that we kept. If they failed to put a new arrival in quarantine, we wrote it up.”

Their aim was to prove that by failing to release people who qualified for home confinement, the prison’s policies and practices did not adhere to the CARES Act. The petition argued this practice was threatening the health and lives of the people inside. One woman told Truthout that the seriousness of the threat even inspired some guards to assist the efforts of the women to win their release by carrying their letters to the post office.

Incarcerated organizers broadened their base by connecting to lawyers willing to file petitions on their behalf. The women at Danbury drafted their own petitions, then forwarded them to Sarah Russell of Quinnipiac Law School to polish and file. Their documents so impressed Judge Michael Shea that he wrote a 74-page report detailing the horrific conditions in Danbury and requiring the BOP “to release from custody or to home confinement members of the [medically vulnerable] Subclass” and “provide medically adequate social distancing and health care and sanitation for members of the Class who remain.” His court order led to the release of Dawn Brooks on June 4, 2020.

When she left, Brooks “vowed to all the others that she would keep pushing.”

Brooks and the other Danbury activists shared strategies for mobilizing and building networks to block the vagaries of BOP actions. Their efforts also gained support from Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and the ACLU. Color of Change mounted a petition on their behalf. Twenty-nine organizations signed a letter to President Biden asking for clemency for all those on home confinement under the CARES Act.

Resistance was not limited to Danbury. In the early days of the pandemic, the federal prison complex at Lompoc, California, had, according to the Los Angeles Times, the “worst COVID-19 outbreak in any correctional facility in the country.” As of May 13, 2021, over 900 of the 2,700 people locked in Lompoc’s three prisons had COVID. More than half had been declared eligible for release, but only eight had been sent home. In response, five men filed a class-action suit against the BOP alleging “cruel and unusual punishment” for not doing enough to stop the pandemic. They won a temporary injunction which forced the prison to review cases of people over 50 who were eligible under the CARES Act. The injunction ultimately contributed to the transfer of 249 people to home confinement.

Chay McFarland was one of those medically vulnerable people noted by Kraus-Heitmann. Suffering from asthma and diabetes, McFarland had already spent 15 years in an assortment of federal prisons. She was terrified when her name was not on the list of people approved for release.

“Does that mean you get to keep me here and kill me?” she asked when the unit captain told her.

McFarland, who was a lawyer before incarceration, built a nucleus of support from the Facebook Group Loved Ones of Coleman Campers as well as by enlisting law school students from Emory University and interns from the University of South Carolina who drafted compassionate release petitions. Five of these petitions were successful in gaining release for people behind bars.

Adrienne Miller worked closely with McFarland at Coleman. A protégé of Alice Marie Johnson, whom President Trump released in 2018 after pressure from Kim Kardashian, Miller told Truthout she had written over 3,000 letters in 2020 trying to gain her own clemency. She was granted clemency by Trump and released on the day of Biden’s inauguration.

“Don’t Send Us Back”

The efforts of the Danbury 100 and the other activists didn’t stop when people were released. They set up a private Facebook group, Don’t Send Us Back, where a vibrant dialog combined legal advice, coping with home confinement and even fundraising for one member whose belongings were damaged by flood waters.

Organizers soon began fielding queries about the strict rules of electronic monitoring which limited movements outside their home or halfway house.

Kraus-Heitmann attributed “95 percent of the problems” they heard about to the stringent use of the electronic monitor.

“It’s not just the bracelet,” she explained. “It’s the entire life you have attached to it.”

Some people had their devices changed, moving from radio frequency, which only indicates whether a person is at home, to GPS tracking, which was combined with check-ins by probation staff.

Predictably, these visits affected their ability to keep their jobs. One person complained to Kraus-Heitmann that probation supervisors began phoning her employer every day at 7 am and 9 pm. While her employer was patient at first, the daily calls eventually led to her dismissal.

74-year-old Paulette Martin told NBC News that the home confinement supervisor phoned her three times a night. “I’m stressed,” she told the reporter. “I got more rest in prison.… I really don’t have no freedom.”

One woman in Texas was sent back to prison because she stopped at a store to fix her phone after it died. Since the stop was not on her list of approved movements, she was sent back to prison. In another instance, 76-year-old Gwen Levi had been approved to enroll in a computer class, but was sent back to prison when she failed to answer a phone call during that class. Only advocacy from FAMM and members of the Danbury 100 secured her release.

Eva Cardoza was not so fortunate. While on home confinement, she tested positive for marijuana and was sent back to prison for over a year. She was among the roughly 300 of those released under the CARES Act returned to prison for violating one of the many stringent conditions of supervision.

Thousands, however, were released and, despite the myriad restrictions and intrusions, able to rebuild their lives. As Brooks pointed out, after two years, only eight people released under the CARES Act were returned to prison for new criminal charges, proving that authorities “could release people and communities could still be safe … there are community outlets that could be utilized to keep people on the outside.”

The Real Angels of Mercy

Of the 40,000 people released from federal prisons between March 2020 and summer 2022, only 11,000 were released under the CARES Act. According to the BOP, less than 6,000 currently remain on home confinement. The others have completed their sentences, but most remain on the federal version of parole, known as supervised release.

While the policy allowing people to be released from pandemic hotspots to home confinement may have saved some lives, the overall outcome fell far short of rising to the needs of the occasion.

The BOP might deploy a set of bureaucratic praise singers to convince outsiders that the agency combined efficiency and compassion in their pandemic plans. But the real angels of mercy were the militant firebrands among the incarcerated population. This was especially true at Danbury, where women connected and cared for each other while building organizations and networks, finding ways to utilize social media with help from outside organizers (since internet access is forbidden), and mobilizing legal resources to get free.

Once through the prison gates, many remained committed to addressing the needs of their brothers and sisters left behind.

As Brooks told Truthout, “We got out together, we stick together.… We continued the process in fight mode.”

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